Wharf Rats

“I wouldn’t worry about it, honey,” said Allen, turning over and adjusting the pillow, preparing for some much needed sleep before he began another day that started religiously at 5am. “The storm is supposed to hit Maryland. We won’t get much more than a bunch of rain.” he said this to his wife reassuringly but was withholding emotion. The hurricane was already a category four and was gaining speed. It was ripping Roanoke Island to shreds as they spoke and that was only the side bands. “What do the models know anyway?” he thought, fidgeting under the covers, not quite relaxed enough to take that much needed plunge into dreamland. At this point he doubted if he would even be able to sleep with the possibility of waking to a major Hurricane along with the nightmares of rats he had been having since he had started working down at the wharf.

“I can’t imagine having a storm like that here in Manhattan” she said. “Will you wake me up when you get up so we can watch the news together? I will go back to sleep after you head out and when I get up, I’ll come down to the fish market and bring breakfast…… that is if we aren’t under water,” she laughed uneasily.

Lilly was a tough old broad for a classy New York gal. She surprised him with her genuine courage. Sometimes Allen felt like more of a chicken than her when it came to certain situations like confronting the delivery guys for not being punctual. After all if he had to get up at the crack of dawn then they too had better be on time too. When it came to confrontation he wasn’t that honest or steadfast.

“Honey”, she asked in a sultry voice”, if it looks really bad in the morning can you have Bill cover you and let’s skip out my to parents in Parsippany?” Do you think we could make it through the Lincoln tunnel before rush hour?”

The wind was picking up and you could hear the moaning as it crossed the window of their high rise apartment just north of SoHo along the east side opposite the Brooklyn bridge.

“Lilly, please let’s get some sleep”, he grumbled turning over finally finding that final crash position. “Sure honey. We will make that decision first thing when we get up. If it looks bad we will just go. Better safe than sorry.” He yawned one last time sending that rush of endorphins to his brain. “I haven’t had more than a few hours of good sleep in a week. Starting a new business is hell. I hope it pays off. Tomorrow we start painting the front lobby. And we also have to seal off the dry goods storage area because of those damn rats. So much to do. Opening day is only a week away.” He could barely finish the words as he drifted to sleep or passed out which would better befit his exhausted state. Tonight he was hopeful for at least one hour of REM sleep. If only he could not be awaken by the terrifying vision of that creature that has been plaguing his dreams.

“I know honey, I love you too”, she giggled and snuggled up to his back, taking the same position they maintained in their good night ritual since getting married two years ago. She kissed him on the neck which was the final step in their cozy good night ritual before being released into subconscious.

Allen was too tired to dwell on this tonight and the storm didn’t bother him enough to keep him up. He was just too exhausted. He and his partner Bill Massey recently partnered on Big Al’s Fish Market back in January, they had acquired the building on South Street along the Hudson and were in the business to give the existing fish markets one heck of a run for their money. With all their connections in Thailand, Ecuador and Japan they were going to have no problems. Just getting the facilities in order was more of a nightmare than they ever imagined. This was their first business venture together opening their own store. The last thing they needed was a Hurricane one week before opening day.

The National Weather service and all the freakin’ media had been squawking about it all day, and by evening they had resolved that Hurricane Roberta would move on in land and the eye would land somewhere over Baltimore and head west, missing NY altogether. He would hate to have to run for cover with Lilly and leave Bill hanging, but he had been really neglecting her lately, consumed by the opening day. But that wasn’t going to happen.  With all the Hurricanes this year and the advanced radar systems, they hadn’t been wrong so far this season in any of their predictions. The wind moaned as it slowly picked up speed. Tomorrow would be another busy day with a lot of rain he told himself. Still they would check the news when he woke up,….. AFTER a strong cup of coffee.

As he drifted into his subconscious state, he fought to stave off that wicked vision of the half man-half rat that had been stalking him in his dreams. Not only was he terrified of rats after being bit by his pet hamster at the age of six, he was reminded daily of them working down at the wharf. The rats that lived along the Hudson were huge! They were a constant nuisance and he never went longer than 15 minutes without seeing one scurrying around the new store. His partner, Bill was constantly killing them and trying to make the store “rat-proof” but they always managed to infiltrate their storage area. Allen could not. He would freeze at the sight of one. Where did they come from? There must be a city of rats below Manhattan. They had covered every wall and even the ceilings and the room was air tight.

For the past two weeks his phobia had manifested into a nightmare. Every night he was awakened by his own silent scream as he sat up in bed white faced. The creature had swats of matted hair everywhere and deep scars all over its body from scratches with dried blood matted in the fur. The thing’s face was less like a normal man and there were matted patches of hair and mud along its jaws. The hair on its head was slicked back and long with slime and chunks of dried blood matted in it. It had a deformed nose extending out over a serious overbite looking more like a rat than a man as it drooled. In his dreams he would strike back at it trying and kill it and when he would hit it with his bat, the thing would squeal this deafening high pitch mixed with a gurgle and then leap out and grab his leg pulling him towards the storm drain and into the sewers of Manhattan below the city. The creature would open his mouth screaming and hissing as it pulled him and Allen would wake just before it would sink its huge extended jaw and razor sharp teeth into his leg. Last night was the worst. He had it cornered in the dry storage. Thousands of rats were all around the thing as if it was leading them. When the thing skirted around him to get away, Allen cut its tail off and the beast screeched sending the rats attacking him, climbing all over his body. As he fought to fend them off the creature, it sunk its teeth in his side. Allen had awakened screaming and Lilly awoke to him cowering under the sheets. Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to take a break tomorrow and just drive west until the storm had passed. He was exhausted.

The phone rang at least four rings and Lilly had to nudge Allen twice before he stuck out his arm with his sightless radar, blindly feeling around and pushing the cellphone to the floor. He grumbled and reached down for the phone that was pounding out that annoying ringtone, “Gotta git that Boom Boom Boom”, and then the light.. It was Bill on the caller ID.

Still half asleep, he answered, “Can’t this wait til morning?”

“Dude, it is 5:30 Am.”, Bill said hastily trying to continue on but was interrupted by Allen.

“What!?” he growled, sitting up with a shock. He was immediately relieved that he had not awakened from his normal nightmare. But that fear was replaced with shock. The wind rattled the window and his senses were alerted immediately to the sound of what seemed like hundreds of car alarms going off. Normally there was always some ambient light coming in their room from the street lights, signs and adjacent buildings but now it was pitch dark and as he quickly gathered his senses and made for the window, the emergency sirens started wailing. Lilly jumped up and out of bed. They were in a black box and had no sense of direction. The land marks from their daily life in the Big Apple had disappeared. Lilly grabbed her cell phone and turned on the flashlight making her way around the bed to get a view outside.

“What’s going on Allen? The power is out. What time is it? ” she pleaded.

“What’s happening Bill?” Allen cleared his throat from the abrupt awakening and onset of fear from the situation.” We have no power here. Did you lose yours? Before Bill could reply, the call dropped. Fresh terror rose in Allen. The wind screamed along the building from the 24th floor and they could feel the building swaying and creaking.  Lilly joined Allen at the window and they pulled the curtain back. The visibility was almost zero. Sheets of rain pounded the window and it sagged as the wind squalled by so hard that they stepped back in fear of an implosion. In total darkness they could hear nothing but alarms and sirens, wind and rain. The hurricane was on top of them furiously attacking Lower Manhattan.

Outside their apartment door you could hear the sound of the neighbors opening their doors and converging to assess the situation.

“Oh my God”, Lilly said and clutched Allen in the dark holding their only source of light from the cell phone. “The Hurricane made it here that quick?!”

“Don’t panic honey, let’s go check with the neighbors in the hall. I can hear them.”  They inched over to the door and made their way out of their room. The backup lighting was on in the hallway but flickered as the building shivered and swayed from the fierce wind. A crowd was gathered three doors down at old man Goldstein’s and you could hear a cheap radio announcing the storm advisories from the National weather service’s automated emergency message.

“Is everyone alright”, asked Lilly in a shrill but fully awake voice.

“Our window is blown out and our apartment is soaked”, cried Mrs. Winslow who lived across the hall on the side of the building that overlooked the river.

“The radio station says to stay indoors. Newark and the Jersey cities inland are being evacuated as we speak. Hurricane Roberta is about to make landfall. It’s now a CAT 5 with winds at 150mph”, spouted the computer whiz Roger who had just moved into the unit at the end of the hall last month. Lilly grabbed tightly to Allen’s arm. He was surprisingly calm realizing that he had not awakened by the formidable image of the rat man.

“OK, so we are stuck here”, Allen said with an authoritative voice that surprised himself and Lilly too. “Everyone go get your flashlights and let’s meet back here. We need a team to assess the other floors and see if we can make it down to the street to see how bad the flooding is. Some of the older couples may need to be helped up to a safer floor”. Lilly didn’t say a word and tightened her grip on his arm. Moments later several people reconvened with lights and blankets and anything else they thought useful.

“Who is up for being a part of this emergency response team?” Asked a man whom no one had met yet that had just moved in. “Oh by the way my name is Kurt. I just moved in last week. Nice to meet you all despite these circumstances.”

Everyone shared in the introduction which helped the panicky chitter chatter subside and they started volunteering. There were only five men on their floor that were not elders. The rest were women and only two children that were scared and whining while their parents consoled them. It was agreed that a team of four men would head down to assess the situation while one stayed to keep the others safe.

“Please stay honey”, I don’t have a good feeling about this, Lilly pleased.

“They need me Lilly,” Allen reluctantly replied. He was somehow feeling some much needed courage especially after all the humiliating episodes he had awakened to for the past week. It felt good not being afraid despite these circumstances.

He turned to Lilly and gave her a reassuring hug, “It will be OK honey. We will just go check out the severity of the flooding and lend a hand if needed and come right back. There may be people that need our help. She looked up at him and shined the light in his face.”

“Ok, but please be careful. I am proud of you.” Lily showed that look that he hadn’t seen in a long time: the look of a proud wife. He had felt like such a coward lately and tonight he needed to be strong.

The sirens continued but the car alarms could barely be heard anymore more, muffled by the winds and rain pounding the high rise building.

“Ok, everyone just stay here and keep listening to the Emergency Broadcast System. We will be back soon” said a large man named Saul. “We are just going to assess the situation below and return with news. He turned, reassured his wife and the men headed for the stairwell.

They left their floor and started down. The winds seemed to be picking up and that could only mean that the Hurricane was making landfall. Allen was surprised that he was even able to sleep if only a few hours without the taunting nightmares. He was wide awake and ironically refreshed despite the ensuing calamity.

“Keep together guys”, Allen yelled above the pounding noise that echoed up the stairwell.

There was no one coming up the stairs as they went down until they came to the 10th floor.  He could hear muffled voices below. Allen, stopped at the landing and opened the door to the residences. As expected, there were tenants gathering in the hallway as they were where he had left his wife and neighbors. He closed the door and signaled to the men to continue on down.

As they started down to the 9th floor, the roar of the winds started subsiding.

“Hopefully that means the storm is weakening”, shouted Kurt.

For some reason Allen knew that that was not the case. The eye of the Hurricane was on top of them. As the pounding subsided he could hear the screams below. The others heard it too and they all looked at each other and without a word continued on with a new sense of urgency.

They followed Allen down watching their steps as the emergency stairwell was getting humid and slippery from the combined water from the above floors seeping down. By the time they got to the 4th floor there were people ushering up and onto the floor landing and into the apartments. One man, holding a little girl and escorting an elderly lady into safety said frantically,

“There are others that need help. The flood waters are rising!. He didn’t say more and rushed the two out of the stairwell to safety.

Saul looked at Allen and gave the forward motion with his arm. The wind had subsided now and was replaced with sobs and wailing from below. As they rounded the stairs to the 3rd floor another group of people forced their way up. They looked shocked and were soaking wet. As they passed, Kurt asked a disturbed young lady holding her daughter if she was OK. She just nodded, sobbing and pointed below and kept moving up to a safer floor.

By the time they made it down to the second floor there were frantic people passing them pushing and shoving the men out of the way. The winds had totally died out by now and all that could be heard was splashing and screams.

When they rounded the stairs to the second floor they faced the terrifying sight of the second floor half filled with water and debris rising pushing up dozens of people onto the steps, some crazed and fighting to get over other others as they fought to reach the stairs.

Allen signaled for the rescue party to line up against the wall single file and begin pulling the people out. The residents were mad with terror and fighting for their lives. One teenage girl had almost made it to the railing when an overweight woman pushed through and almost drown the poor girl.

“Easy lady” yelled the fourth man in their party that Allen didn’t catch his name.

The man quickly pulled the panicking woman up and past them telling her to shut up and get to safety. Kurt pulled the poor girl to the surface and helped her past the mob. The others were swimming over as the water reached at least 5 feet and was not receding.

The winds started to howl again. Allen was afraid of this. The worst was yet to come. Roberta was now right on top of Manhattan meaning more destruction and flooding. They had to work quickly to get everyone to higher ground. Above the sound of the encroaching winds and screams he could hear the faint sound of what sounded like crickets chirping at first. As it got louder fresh terror consumed Allen and he froze. He knew that sound too well. Rats!

There were at least ten more people swimming up to the stairs and the men were pulling them up and directing them to the 4th floor as fast as they could.

Then they came along with their deafening squeals; a sea of rats, swimming to the stairs and hopping from person to person in the water. The creatures’ eyes were red when the flashlights stuck them. There were hundreds of them. Allen stood there frozen and was brought back to his senses as a young man grabbed at his ankle and pulled himself out of the water. At that same moment a rat scurried straight up the boy’s arm and half way up Allen’s leg, before he reacted, shaking the rat off screaming.

“Get a hold of yourself man,” yelled Saul behind him and pulled the boy on up the stairs. There were people still in the water as it continued to rise, rats coming in droves.

By now Allen had choked down his phobia and was trying with all his might to focus on getting the people to safety as fast as they could despite these filthy creatures trying to scale him.

He pulled person after person out and up fighting and slapping off the vile creatures as they clawed their way out of the water. The winds were now at their peak again and the water still rising. Allen could see about 5 more people in the water and an endless sea of rodents. Between the winds, the people and the rats the sound was deafening and Allen held tight to his sanity and struggled to stifle the panic in his throat.

“At least I’m not Claustrophobic”, he thought and it took away some of the anxiety. He wondered if his musophobia would worsen after this. A calm came over him at this thought and he instantly felt hope that he would be better.

They continued to pull the last few people out of the freezing cold water. The screams subsiding and also the rats were thinning out.   Allen kept grabbing arm after arm handing him them up to the men, Saul directly behind him. He looked back and there were at least 30 people climbing to safety. Saul gave him a reassuring glance and kept the procession moving. Still looking back, Allen heard a gurgle and scratchy pleading voice,

“Help me pleaasssse”!

Allen volunteered an arm and it locked onto his. Before he could turn, he saw the look in Saul’s pale face, frozen with fear! He turned and looked down to see a hairy arm with grungy un-manicured nails that dug frantically into his forearm. Allen winced and the scream that he was unleashing caught in his throat. He already knew what had him. He tried to shake the grip but it tightened on his. His eyes turned and locked onto the creature, its eyes red and glowing, rotting teeth and drool coming from the where the voice originated.

“Help meee!” it spurted as it pulled him closer, drooling over his arm and locking its glance. Allen, paralyzed with fear, felt Saul pull at his jacket as the creature lunged forward and sunk its teeth in Allen’s leg. Suddenly all the years of torment whispered away from Allen’s fearful mind and he turned and glared at the beast, grimacing with a sense of triumph, grabbing it by its matted hair and lunged forward taking it down and away into the icy cold flood waters.