The Rat-Bug War by Avra Margariti

I peer at the long, rutted road through my telescope—nothing but brambles and small puffs of dust stirred by the occasional wind.

“All clear.”

“Our friends are probably gonna die, and you act like you don’t care,” Lev says and wipes his eyes on his torn sleeve.

I pat my telescope’s scratched-up body. “I’m doing my job.”

His blood-shot glare is unnecessary. The boy’s a redhead—his translucent skin is a barometer of his feelings. “I was assigned here too, but I’m not being heartless about it.”

I turn away from him. I’m not callous. Not heartless. He shouldn’t assume those things about me just because I’m not like him: I don’t cry when I’m sad or seek affection when I’m lonely.

I look around the windy, debris-filled battlement. This tower used to be home to the old kings and queens before they were overthrown centuries ago and forced to their wet-splashed deaths from this very spot. Now it shelters about fifty kids preparing for battle several half-collapsed floors below.

This is not the time or place for his survivor’s guilt. Assuming we survive, that is. I just want Lev to stop talking. I’ve always found his mouth fascinating, but now it’s making things harder.

The ruined city is six miles south of our settlement, every street and building teeming with them. I guess the underground couldn’t contain the giant rodents and insects any longer. Hell, they even overtook the skies, the spiders’ gossamer nets stretching high above the power lines, locusts swarming like an omniscient eye above it all. They’ve always lived in the sewer and cave network below our city, and nobody thought to question this until it was too late. No priest or tutor could convince us orphans and rejects to give up our perhaps pointless cause of cleansing our city. We refuse to run away like all the cowardly adults did.

I catch movement up the road: a dark, writhing mass scuttling toward us. The closer the horde gets, the more I can see. Horns and pincers, claws and teeth. I swallow back bile that burns all the way down.

Lev pulls the brass bell with the entire weight of his scrawny body. “Gods. They’re coming.”

I focus on the field below despite the war-drum in my chest. Κids pour out of the castle, hollering and brandishing makeshift weapons. Toy soldiers.

“We should be down there,” Lev says. “Fighting alongside them.”

“Nothing we can do about it now. Remember, our job is to watch the battle and improve our strategy.”

Lev’s gaze sears the little hairs at the back of my neck. Leaning on my cane, I whirl around to face him. His eyes are as dry and hard as the weathered stone around us.

“You know I can’t fight,” I hiss. “I’ve shown my worth elsewhere. That’s why I’m here instead of being rat-snack back in the city.”

He has the decency to look ashamed. When I was a babe, my mama left me on the orphanage steps. Before the nuns found me, the rats did, leaving me a bloody, mauled parcel at their door.

Sometimes I don’t know what I see in him. Until he says in the sweetest, softest voice, “Hey. I’m sorry,” and I’m reminded of why I asked for Lev to be put on watch duty with me. Why I wanted to protect that damn boy who doesn’t want my protection.

I lean against the embrasure, and Lev joins me. I used to think I owed him. During the first tense weeks at the castle, Lev protected me, the runt of the litter. Afterwards, I observed him. When he cried in his pallet because his parents took the last boat out of the city but left him behind; when he worried about hurting his sparring partners; when he secretly spooned his porridge into the bowl of anyone thinner than him. What I feel is no mere obligation, but something far more inconvenient.

We don’t need a telescope to watch the carnage when the two sides collide. It looks like a dance, the way the teens and monsters charge and retreat, clash and separate. The grass has darkened with blood—red from the kids or black from the creatures, I can’t tell, but every blade is sagging with it. Giant pincers gore through concave chests. Knives plunge between exoskeleton breastplates to squishy bug-hearts. The rats’ scaly tails wrap around the kids’ throats and squeeze. The kids get the upper hand, slicing open the gigantic rats’ fattened bellies, spilling their glistening guts. Then a new wave of myriad-eyed bugs smothers them, and I don’t know who’s winning and who’s losing. The battle stench makes our eyes water, yet we’re too transfixed to blink.

Lev’s grip on the rough stone whitens. “Dontcha wanna get revenge on them?” he whispers.

That’s another strike against him. “I don’t care about revenge! We could reclaim our city and bring the adults back and I still wouldn’t give a damn,” I scream in his face. “You want the bugs to lay eggs in your ears? The rats to gnaw your bones? Fine by me. Just warn me next time I decide to keep you safe.”

Lev’s moss-green eyes go shock-wide. “You were protecting me?”

“I…” I just want the melee to end so I can clean up the battlefield, gather my friends’ remains, and comfort the mourners; keep busy so that I don’t feel tempted to jump off this tower and find out what the kings and queens experienced firsthand.

I move away from him. Maybe the reason I’ve been gathering strikes against him is to convince myself that he’s not worth it, that now I can stop worrying about him every second of the day. I can avoid finding out if I really have a heart.

Lev’s hand inches closer, gently nudging mine. Our pinky fingers entwine. Down there, the screams, screeches, and clangs of battle ring through the field.

Up here, I hold Lev’s hand and let myself picture the two of us together in the fabled city beyond the water.

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, The Forge Literary, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Argot Magazine, The Arcanist, and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on Twitter.