The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2023 Winners Anthology, Enter the Imaginarium here.
“Lylan’s Secret” by Jude McElfresh, Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School
Third Place, Middle School Level, 2023
Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School
In the wild, rats of all kinds stick together in packs consisting of up to five to ten; and, when in packs, the group mainly feasts together.
A study taking place in 1983 proved that wild rats usually eat berries, fruit, and nuts, showing them to be mostly vegetarian. But in extreme stress situations, they have been proven to eat things like chicken and even live birds. This study was inspired after a horrific occurrence of events took place in the small town of Lylan, Texas.
I was nine years old, and this story begins in the year 1980. My father wanted to be a writer. He had an old typewriter that he kept in his office. The old thing was busted and hadn’t worked in years. Even so, me and Mom used to find him sitting on the leather couch, sketching down ideas with a pen and pad. He always talked about replacing the thing and buying a better, newer one. But in the small town of Lylan, especially back then, money didn’t come easily.
My father was a sanitation worker, meaning he and his colleagues had the assignment of cleaning and maintaining the town’s local sewage lines. One day, he had been called by his boss telling him he would have to work late that Monday—meaning he would miss the town’s Fourth of July festival. Mayor Bradfield always threw one that time of year. The whole town would gather and he would give a (reluctant) speech about how appreciative he was of our community.
Dad’s boss was named Harry Donwen. He was a large man with a raspy voice, and his skin was as dark as the cigars he constantly smoked in his office. Overall, Harry Donwen was quite wealthy, unlike most of the people in our poor little town.
It was four o’clock and I sat in the back of Mom’s old Ford Pinto, reading A Wrinkle in Time. Mom was quiet as she drove through the green countryside—she always was—and just as I neared the end of my chapter, the rusty car came to a sudden stop underneath a shady grove of trees.
“Here we are,” she said as she turned to me and smiled. Then she leaned over the seat and unlocked my door. I slowly bent the corner of my page. As I got out, the old car seemed to shake. Mom took my hand and led us up a small hill and, as we approached, the festival came into sight.
It wasn’t much, just a few small rides and about eight tables sitting on top of a large hill. The hill overlooked most of our town and, near an empty chair, was a small creek with water flowing gently for about a hundred feet until coming across a large water pipe. I didn’t know it at the time, but this pipe ran across the entire town feeding into the sewage lines and our homes.
A woman with curly blond hair stepped toward Mom. “Sharon?” she asked as she smiled. Mom walked forward and hugged her. As they talked, I found my way to the empty seat near the creek and sat down.
The summer of 1980 in Lylan, Texas, was a hot one, with temperatures reaching up to 112 degrees. Hot enough to make warm sweat run down the side of your face and your shirt cling to your body like a wet towel. I reached down, pulling out a cold Pepsi from a bucket of ice.
School started in late August and, as I thought of it, I couldn’t help staring at the creek: the water smoothly running down its divine path through rocks and fallen twigs all the way to that water pipe. I turned around, hearing the faint tap of a finger on a microphone. Mayor Bradfield stood on top of a small platform, happily staring down at his wife, Mary. He was shorter in real life and was wearing brown leather boots and straw hat with gray hairs poking through it.
After a minute, he finally smiled and said loudly, “Wow, it’s nice today.”
Then he took off his hat and set it on a nearby box. As he kept talking, I turned my chair back to the water and drank my pop slowly.
After a minute, Mom came and sat down next to me. “Don’t you want pizza?” she asked, glancing at my empty plate.
“No,” I mumbled hoarsely as I dug the heel of my shoe into the soft dirt.
“Are you not having a good time?”
I looked up, “I guess not.”
She put her hand on my back then got up and walked away.
Not long after, I found myself looking at the water and, as it slowly streamed into a small pool, my eyes widened, and I leaned my head cautiously forward, craning my neck.
A small stream of red ran into the mud puddle, and a bloody hand wrapped around the edge of the metal pipe. As I watched in horror, a man in a faded yellow hazmat suit emerged and, as soon as the town grew into a hushed silence, he began to scream.
Nobody knew what they were watching at the time, not even who it was. It was Mayor Bradfield who noticed it first, causing some confusion in the crowd as he looked forward, sheltering his eyes from the sun and slowly mumbling, “What the hell is that?”
Most people assumed it was some looney who made his way into the sewage and got lost down there, but that was not true, and, as the man came into sight, I realized who it was.
Bern Renam was one of my father’s coworkers, one whom Dad had invited to many dinners.
I remembered him from Christmas and other holidays.
A couple months before, he came to our house for dinner, and to this day I remember it clearly. I sat in the window watching rain pour down on passing cars. The rain was thick and loud as it trampled on their metal roofs. Bern came in an old truck with a half-shattered window and a peeling coat of matte black paint. He knocked four times, slowly, but loud enough to hear from upstairs.
Mom stopped stirring the old cast iron pot and lightly sprinted to the door. He was holding a black umbrella with water dripping down onto his shoes, and when he smiled, he revealed a set of plain white teeth.
Now he sat there with what was once a hand, now a bleeding nub of flesh with blood pulsating onto his hazmat suit and a piece of bone poking out. Tears ran down his face and, as he started to stand, a small woman with ginger hair gasped loudly. Most people covered their children’s eyes—some, even their own—but Mom didn’t cover my eyes. She just sat there staring.
“Rats!” Bern screamed, spit flying furiously off his bottom lip.
Now even Bradfield wasn’t speaking and he dropped his microphone as his eyes widened.
“The rats, they killed . . .” he paused looking down. “They killed John.”
And suddenly Mom’s expression faded and Bern fell to the ground.
Then the town slowly started to whisper, and as I turned around, I saw Mom, her hand clenched tightly over her face. She stepped forward, staring into the distance, and everyone went quiet as their eyes focused on her.
“Bern,” she yelled, her feet squishing into the mud.
“Uh, Miss,” said Bradfield “I wouldn’t . . .”
A police siren rang through the air, and as the old cars doors slammed open, two officers stepped out.
“Get back,” yelled the first cop as he waved the second towards Bern. He had golden blond hair, and a coat of dried mud covered his black suede shoes. The second knelt down, struggling at CPR.
“What did he say about my husband?” Mom yelled as she tried to sprint past him. He reached out a hand, grabbing her by the sleeve and pulling her back.
Eventually, an ambulance came to take Bern away, and as me and Mom drove home, the ride was completely silent. I didn’t dare open my book and Mom refused to engage in a conversation with me.
“What did he say about Dad?” I asked suddenly, not expecting an answer, and I didn’t get one. She just kept driving.
When we got home it was night, and as I lay down in bed and closed my eyes, I couldn’t not see Bern, sitting there, with blood streaming into the creek. After a while I went downstairs and overheard Mom on the phone. I stopped in the hallway, peeking through the door; she was standing against the wall, twisting the cord in her fingers with tears in her eyes.
I pushed my ear against the thin wood, and through the other line I heard a faint voice, “Ms. Thompson, we’re doing everything we can.”
“Carl,” Mom muttered.
“Sharon, I’m sorry. There was nothing down there,” the voice said.
Lylan was quiet for a while—all were in awe over what had just happened. Rumors slowly began to blossom like wildfire, and like wildfire it got bigger and bigger, covering the surrounding land.
Later that week, Bern was interrogated at the town hospital. The officer was named Harold Bardwen. He was the type of dumb cop who would repetitively shove donuts in his mouth, and his stomach popped out under his shirt.
“So,” he said, taking off his hat and sitting down on a small bench next to the hospital bed. “You wanna try and tell me what happened?”
Bern leaned his head to the side. “I said ‘No,’ and, besides, I already told it to all those reporters.”
Harold sighed, long and hard. “We’re not trying to do anything but figure out what happened, OK, and we can’t do that without you telling us what you saw down there.”
The air conditioner hummed quietly in the background, filling the silence as Bern stared up at the ceiling. “I’m not crazy,” he whispered softly.
“What?” Harold turned his head to face Bern.
“I’m not crazy!” Bern yelled, making every nurse in the hospital turn their head to glance at him.
“Nobody said you were crazy.”
“I know you’re thinking it, I know this whole goddamn town is thinking it.” He bit his lip, breaking the skin. As he looked down, he began to cry.
Later that day, Harold drove back to the station. He was upset for two reasons. One was the unbearable heat that had swept over the town almost as suddenly as when Bern crawled out of that sewer pipe.
And two was the fact that, three days later, the Lylan Weekly still had more information on the case than him.
He stretched out a hand pulling on the old car’s rusted handle. The door popped open, and as he sat down, the hot leather burnt his skin.
After driving a couple miles, he stopped in the parking lot of an old burger joint. He’d been going there for years and had decided it was the best place in town.
“Hey, Harold,” said the man behind the counter as he slowly walked in. He was an older man with pale wrinkled skin, and gray curly hair. “You want the usual?”
“Yeah,” said Harold, sitting down next to the window and staring at the passing cars.
“Did you hear about that Chris Talmor kid yet?” Doug asked as he slowly lowered a cage full of onion rings into the fryer.
Harold paused, turning his chair to face the counter. “No, what happened?”
“Something about rats again. They’ve got the whole town on edge.”
“Oh, please,” said Harold. “No one actually believes that psycho.”
“I’m being serious,” said Doug as he slowly wrapped Harold’s burger in foil. “Go down to Lublin Street tonight, talk to his family. Heck, it might help your case.”
“I doubt that,” said Harold, getting up to grab his food. “But I’ll try.”
Chris Talmor was thin. He had dirty blond hair and freckles that covered his face.
“Where’s Dave?” Chris asked as he dragged the tip of a match against his nail, sparking it to life.
“I didn’t know he was supposed to be here.” Ben looked up, taking a long drag from his cigarette. “Maybe he’s still at the store.”
“That was like three hours ago,” said Chris. “It doesn’t take this long to grab new shoes.”
Ben spun around, hearing a branch fall to the ground. He slowly walked over to the fence, peering over the edge. “What was that?”
“Nothing, just an old tree,” Chris said.
“Oh.” He walked to the end of the alley, looking in both directions.
“Is he here yet?” asked Chris, as he knelt down to tie his shoe.
“No,” said Ben, sighing.
“Oh, God!” yelled Chris, jumping back.
It darted away, and as Ben turned around, the only thing he could see was its light pink tail slipping under the fence.
“Jesus,” said Chris, sitting up and brushing the dirt off his pants.
“Hey,” said Ben. “You don’t think that guy from the sewers was telling the truth, I mean, about all the rats and everything?”
Chris laughed, “Of course not, that guy has a criminal record. It’s just, you’d think if you were going to kill some guys, you’d come up with a better excuse, ya know?”
“I guess,” he brushed away the hair from his face. “What was that?” Ben stepped back slowly.
A rat ran out from under the fence scurrying away, and Chris fell to the floor, scraping open his palm.
Suddenly, more and more rats started crawling through the fence, packs of tens and twenties running past them into the streets.
Ben sat up, watching as they cramped together—squeezing into a small gutter at the end of sidewalk. Eventually they were gone, and by the time Dave got there, Chris and Ben were, too.
Three weeks later, the town was a mess. More and more Missing Persons reports started flooding in. People were boarding up their houses and putting rat traps outside their front doors.
There wasn’t a day that went by without a black helicopter flying above our houses. Trucks drove by, dumping rat poison on the streets, and neighbors sat on their front porches shooting any animal they saw.
This was about the time that Lylan was put into quarantine with huge walls surrounding the borders of the town, reaching up to fifty feet tall.
“Nowadays, Lylan isn’t on the maps anymore. It’s like they just deleted it. Gone from existence. I’ve looked everywhere, not a trace. See, you believe me, Doc, don’t you?”
The doctor looks down, reaching out a pen and pad, and sketching down words that he still won’t let me see. Then he turns around nodding at the guard. The guard steps forward, pulling me back.
“Oh, please, not again!” I scream. “I promise, I’m telling the truth.”
He turns to me and sighs, then gets up and walks away.
“Wait!” I scream, but he’s gone. As they put me back in that padded room with yellow stained walls that never seem to go away, I wonder if he’ll ever come back.