It could be a rat. They were evil familiars of the vampires, sorcerers and witches in his favorite online games, except this little brown thing nosing around the base of the dumpster didn’t look like much compared to the automobile-sized creatures darting across his screen every day. The trick was to ignore them. A rat was worth only ten to fifteen points and while you were busy zapping it the three-hundred-point sorcerer got away, or Dracula bit you right out of the game.
It certainly was ugly—Willard decided he’d give it that, and the alley smelled like it was fermenting under the still-merciless evening sun. He’d mention the odor to Mr. Ramahastri after addressing the principal insult of the continued lack of Monday delivery. The blinking icon of the GPS app showed New Delhi Delite another half-block west, past the rat, which he decided looked implausibly thin. Mr. Ramahastri would have to understand. If this was how they treated a good customer he’d simply order from another restaurant. It wasn’t like this part of town lacked for curry shops.
* * *
A sense of grievance carried Willard on, even if it was too hot to be out walking. He disliked being outside, especially during a project. Better to sit in comfort writing code while sweaty service-types delivered meals and cleaned up the apartment around him. What he was in the middle of, what was being neglected in favor of this nonsense, was the biggest opportunity yet. There was nothing more important than being co-developer of Flex, the most exciting management tool in years.
Multi-national companies using the early version were reporting big savings. Flex 2.0 would save them even more by tracking thousands of projects in real-time. As soon as a project ended, the program decided which staff in which countries could be let go and instantly notified them. It was truly the answer to getting the most out of a global work force. His contributions were vital to meeting the release date.
He should be in his ergonomic chair working on the remaining glitches instead of taking the shortcut through a foul alley to pick up dinner. New Delhi Delite’s chicken vindaloo was the best, and he wanted it when he wanted it. Mondays were the problem. Incredible that in these days of the 24/7 global economy, Mr. Ramahastri could insist on giving the delivery flunky an evening off. It made sense only as a reminder that some people still didn’t understand that the post-recession economy was picking winners and losers every day.
The rat froze as he came closer for a look; only the quick throbbing pulse along the neck distinguished it from lumps of shattered asphalt and other rodent-sized debris littering the alley. A tattered ear flared stiffly from the dun-colored head. The other appeared to be missing. Dark eyes of unblinking madness suggested backing off was a good idea. Willard retreated half a dozen steps before risking another look. The creature had come upright on spindly hind legs, pinkish nose snuffling inquisitively as though it couldn’t see very well at that distance but knew he was there. The tiny skull proved the primitive brain. Wouldn’t it have gone on to something better than an alley?
He framed it with the phone-camera. Scowling Buddha and Coder Freak had probably not experienced a one-eared rat. A finger hesitated on the button while he considered if his Gamer friends would think the video violated any protocols. They all had their techie jobs, their games. The world beyond was a rumor not to be referred to. They might decide the video, and by extension, he, wasn’t cool. Rats were worth only ten points, fifteen at most.
This was only guessing. He knew Buddha and the Freak entirely through friendly online competition and the cheerfully insulting Gamer comments they left on each others Facebook walls. Their posted photos displayed nearly interchangeable features: Chubby, sun-deprived cheeks rounding to heavy jowls, eyes dull with anticipation of another unattractive head shot. Switching the phone back to GPS mode revealed the destination icon flashing just ahead to a run-down looking house backing onto the alley. Maybe there was a rear entrance.
* * *
It hadn’t fully penetrated when Willard phoned in the order that the voice at the other end didn’t belong to Mr. Ramahastri. Not seriously frightening to see her behind the counter, more an uneasiness in his chest that she might do anything … anything at all. Mid- twenties, maybe, but it was so difficult appraising women who weren’t confined within a twenty-three inch screen. Brown-skinned, and tall, she was a tall brown woman with jet-black hair worn just off the shoulder. The pink tee and jeans affected him in a way he couldn’t trust.
She was nothing like the aggressively business-attired witches in Crypt Killer who were always talking you into tight corners. Their tendency to morph into hideously screeching crazies for no understandable reason kept you guessing. You had to be ready to zap them again and again until their disdainful faces dissolved into pixel dust. He fancied her more as one of the princesses in Blood Feast, pirouetting gracefully in a diaphanous gown, dancing away from menacing rats and groping monsters. You rescued as many princesses as possible and were rewarded—with points, but this one did not appear to be in distress.
Maybe she would say something to him. Of course she would! She’d have to swipe his card. Their hands might touch … it seemed too intimate. Willard stood just inside the door, sweating heavily. She was leaning over a computer—it was so obsolete he didn’t recognize the model—reading something. This could be Mr. Ramahastri’s daughter, his wife, or only an employee. It was always the same problem. He simply couldn’t know.
An awareness of the room resolved as though a screen was adjusted. Peeling, once-white linoleum floor tiles crawled toward dark paneled walls covered with Hindu deities meditating on him from clouds of flaking gilt paint. The green counter dividing the customer area from the interior felt protective.
He’d missed her transition to the counter and was conscious of gaping stupidly. The carefully prepared remarks for Mr. Ramahastri’s ears were purposeless; he sought an opening to wow her: “I make a lot of money,” seemed promising for an instant, though it did not quite address what he understood to be her central theme. “I’m a level 7 in Crypt Killer,” was equally futile. Lovely eyes were narrowing by the nano-second. He nodded quickly, just under the wire, he hoped, except the eyes continued on toward annoyance, and he felt that as typically unfair. You did what you could but it was never seen as good enough. The ocean surf pounding in his left ear described not knowing what came next. He waited with a hand groping the door handle while an elephant god frolicked among dark-eyed maidens on the wall, to the right of the other dark eyes. He made it look easy.
His screen needed further adjustment. Her image was a little too bright, a bit intense for his taste. His finger twitched, toggling for a more distant perspective even as his back pressed against the door. She was too hard to please, and now he just wanted out as quickly as possible. Somebody’s dinner was in a brown bag on the counter next to the register. Swallowing half-formed words, he was pointing, watching her checking the order slip stapled to the bag, wanting to get away easy, hoping for another chance to—
Something in her tone, and longing crashed like poorly designed software. His name in her mouth was an error code. There were words in him for a correction, somewhere … too far. He was moving to the counter, fumbling a card from his wallet, not caring that he was pitiful, slapping it down on his side of the counter. Yeah, make her reach for it, and she did, frowning. He backed away as she leaned in, in case she did something strange, because you just never knew, and the unexpected actually happened: a short brown man appeared in the hallway behind her. His aged face was neutrally composed, yet some alchemy between the set jaw and deeply etched frown lines gave an impression of restrained wrath. A pink floral patterned shirt sweated blotchy red showed above an apron stained several values of yellow. He glanced at the woman processing the card before turning to regard his customer.
This had to be Mr. Ramahastri, come to save him. Mr. Ramahastri, who knew what a good customer was owed, who had taken his order over the phone fifty times at least. They were old friends. He’d wanted to leave, wanted her to disappear. Not now. Not Now. Let her see what he could do.
Mr. Ramahastri always listened when his order wasn’t spiced just right, or came to his door a little cooler than he liked. A note of appreciation sounded within his polite apologies. The man seemed grateful for a customer who took the time to explain how the business might be better run. Looking at his hardworking face was like rescuing princesses—you just wanted to help. Mr. Ramahastri needed him.
“Hi. I’m picking up my order.” Carrying his best smile forward, “I think maybe we’ve spoken over the phone? I’m Ben Willard.”
Mr. Ramahastri vaulted the counter to embrace him during the delusional half-second when he still expected some gesture, but at the end of it the man was still watching him impassively from the hallway. Well, you never knew what foreigners were up to, and then he had to step away quickly because she was back. He stood between counter and door while his bag of dinner was carefully positioned on her side. Look how crazy your wife, girlfriend, daughter, anonymous employee is acting, he grinned to her husband, lover, daddy, sullenly unresponsive boss. She gave him the narrowed-eyes treatment again before turning back to the computer. Mr. Ramahastri stood mute, as though ready to flake off the wall with the other deities. Clearly, it was time to return to the script.
“We’ve talked about Monday delivery. Your business would do better on hot days like this when no one wants to go out.”
A tremor swept Mr. Ramahastri’s features. His dark eyes narrowed exactly like the girl’s, answering one question at least.
“Business,” the man said in a heavy accent, “This is not business now. Nobody come. Too many lay-off.”
“But if you hire another delivery person you could have a larger delivery area and more customers. It’s an investment in your future.”
Mr. Ramahastri gestured at the woman. “Her future. I am here twenty-two year, business up and down, but never bad like this. My daughter has restaurant now. I go home to Delhi. Better opportunity there. America no good anymore.”
It was impossible to help people who didn’t want to help themselves. The woman was ignoring him, and her father was senile. He’d find another restaurant, one that appreciated his business. He reached for his order and credit card. “Your alley stinks like something died, and it’s full of rats.”
“No rats,” Mr. Ramahastri spat from a mouth stretched ugly by contempt. “No business, no garbage. Rats eat each other up.”
“There’s one outside your back door right now.”
“No rats anymore.”
* * *
There was plenty of time to get some work done after dinner if he hurried, maybe time for a game if everything went well. It was a good evening to crank up the A.C. and bust a few rats even if they were worth hardly anything. Willard held the bag tightly while negotiating potholes and deliquescent bits of trash staining the ragged pavement. The GPS led him along—he was surprised by how unfamiliar the alley looked coming back from the restaurant—until he spotted a dumpster he’d seen before.
It was probably best if Mr. Ramahastri scuttled back to wherever he came from. Cynicism had no place in the new economy. If you weren’t up to re-inventing yourself every few years there simply wasn’t much hope. You’d end up a low-paid drudge like the people who cleaned the apartment twice a week. A few cents an hour was the only difference between a good and bad cleaner. They were worth about as much as rats.
Mr. Ramahastri had got it wrong about so many things, and really, how had the poor man lasted this long in the restaurant business with that negative attitude? The country was coming back. The entrepreneurial class, Willard’s class, was laying the foundation of a new prosperity. They would build themselves rich, productive lives in this fresh new world out of all the scurrying, permanently cheap workers who had nothing but their backs to offer. The American Dream the way it should have played out.
The little bugger was still crouched by the dumpster as though waiting for him, and Willard recognized it immediately as the planet’s one-eared benediction. A tattered survivor had come to pay tribute to the new reality. He went right up and crouched over it. The darkly mad eyes held him as before, except now he felt only pride. “You little sweetie,” he crooned, “You understand.” The sensitive pink nose rose up to sniff a salute, quivering in his presence. How could he have thought it ugly with that nose? His hand was moving before he knew he wanted to touch it, touch the future. The animal trembled an inch from his fingers, and then it simply wasn’t there. He was left blinking at the spot of ground where it had been until another sensation shifted his gaze. His hand had grown some additional hair. There was a moment when he imagined the animal had been just as impressed with him, another where he was curious as to how it had managed to attach itself, a third when the burning sensation clarified all.
“ARRGH!” He shot up, an arm shaking dervish. Dinner and phone flew brief parabolic arcs. The rat remained stuck to his hand. Two screens in his head displayed differing points of view: A well-fed man staggered clumsily around an alley, bounced off a bright green dumpster, screaming, blood dribbling from a hand partially obscured by a dark object. The same man sat in an ergonomic chair clicking a mouse frantically at the image of a gaunt, slavering rat.
An eternity of moments before he understood it had let go. Checking himself all over, the dread of finding it hanging from another appendage overwhelming all other thought, he finally convinced himself the beast had gone. His hand perversely began hurting even more. You could get sick from animal bites, and weren’t you supposed to suck out the poison, the germs, the Bad Stuff from the wound? His stomach didn’t feel up to it.
He was aware of the sound an instant before discovering the rat had not actually gone. The rending of paper penetrated hand-clutching, gut roiling focus to spin him around. The vindaloo had burst from the plastic container, covering the bag and the filthy pavement with chicken breast in spicy sauce. The creature was gobbling it up, the sauce-coated bag along with the chicken, and licking the splatters off the pavement. A rhythmic pulsing traveled along its flanks from the frantically gorging throat. Belly already bulging, the animal appeared to be swelling as he watched, and it was that moment he always remembered as the moment it all became too much. His insides let go, spouting up and over the remains of dinner and the disgusting creature stealing what was his.
Bent over, retching, helpless, he knew it wasn’t right. People like him weren’t bitten by rats in stinking alleys. They were never in alleys. You made it to the top of your profession, and all the little people listened to you. You worked and played with your peers. It was your hard-won privilege to ignore everything else. He managed to stand upright and look around. Home was down the alley that way, past these dark buildings, which he now saw were all boarded up—and that wasn’t appealing either. It wasn’t—”It’s not right!” he screamed at the empty buildings, but they flung it back.
He’d shoot a video of everything; the alley, these ugly buildings, the God-damned rat. He’d get the alley closed off so no one like him ever had to see it again. The phone lay on the pavement by the rat, which was still dining, without any apparent squeamishness about lapping up the brownish-yellow puddle of pre and post-digested food.
Start with that. Shoot some footage for his friends. “Another satisfied New Delhi Delite customer” ran the first caption already in his head. Willard snatched the phone up with the bloody hand, the pain permanently setting the insult within him. This was for Mr. Ramahastri, his bitch daughter and everyone else too stupid to get on board the new reality. He framed it all, the rat profiling in filth, the squalid alley, deserted homes and businesses. His finger was on the button, ready to zap them, ready to send them to … who? His friends didn’t care. They’d think he was crazy. Nobody he knew would care about this. Alone, he framed the future, and none of it was his fault, but the camera was suddenly very heavy, and grieving, longing, Willard finally had to put it down. Rats were only worth ten points, fifteen tops.