That rat has a nose piercing. The next one has pink hair. The one crawling out of the sewer has a back tattoo of an oak tree. I hate this alley, crowded yet empty of people. I shouldn’t even be here, but I can turn back at any point. I stuff my hands into my pockets. My shoulders meet my ears, and my shoes don’t leave the ground. I slide down this shortcut, sure to make no casualties during my commute.
Last year, the Free party abolished the death penalty. However, the Prudents insisted they needed a policy in its place. Five months of prison revolts and civilian riots later, our dear government agreed to morph criminals into rats. The Free party claimed that life would still be intact, and the Prudents emphasized savings on infrastructure, food, and other human living expenses. And they could keep sneering at the people they always saw as rodents.
I don’t care what the regime does, as long as I avoid its radar. However, some days I ponder what goes into that rat potion. They’ve been changing human beings into rats for half a year. Rat poison has adopted a whole new meaning. Representing what’s left of our criminal justice system, this concoction is used for every offense. Trespassers and murderers are the same, and no one cares about what happens to the people once transformed. They scurry off to fend for themselves. If you kill a rat, then you’re never charged. One group of extremists discovered this loophole two months ago, justifying their sprees as “cleansing procedures.”
Once I’ve made it to the end of the alley, I join the crowd waddling to the showroom. This Colosseum-esque arena is one big bowl where the Militia members make a show of the transformations. Scalpers sell overpriced corn kernels, while their opposition give out seeds and nuts. At least, Free Party supporters aren’t trying to kill the corn-intolerant rodents, but they’re not doing much to abolish the policy they declare to hate so much. Some have started rat adoption centers or halfway houses, offering comfort but no end.
I keep my hands in my pockets and my head down. I only look up to find a seat. I claim the first open spot I see at the end of a row. I don’t want to spend any more time here than I need to.
The bells toll. Not actual bells, rather recreated audio piped through the stadium’s speakers. The screens read “PLEASE SIT DOWN.” I see what the regime bought with all the money they saved. I can only hear the rattling shackles for a millisecond. At the first sign of this hour’s toys, the crowd erupts. Hollering, chanting, shaking chairs. I don’t know when the regime started allowing blow horns in here. Five people all chained together shuffle onto the stage. Those around me pelt them with corn kernels. The first in line trips and causes the others to stumble. The crowd roars with laughter. I can’t look at Number 2.
A man wearing a headset raises his hand. His image is projected on the screens, and everyone becomes silent. He bows and turns around to grab the first cup off of his assistant’s silver tray. Why is he wearing a headset if he’s not going to say anything? He approaches the man who tripped over himself and nods to him.
The man gulps as his eyes flick around, taking in the crowd surrounding him. “I’m sorry,” he starts. “I didn’t mean to hurt nobody,” he stutters. “I love my family. I’ll find you all soon enough. I promise.”
Headset Man hands him the cup. Once he takes it, I realize how bad his hand shakes. He starts to drink. The crowd chants, “Chug, chug, chug, chug!” Headset Man doesn’t raise his hand. Instead, he tips the bottom of the cup. His first victim coughs and turns the glass upside down. I look down to itch my ankle. With the tumble of a fallen cup, I look up to find the man who seemingly disappeared. The camera operators locate the newly formed rat and project him onto the screens. The crowd reverts to its boisterous self but stops once Headset Man raises his hand again.
He makes his way to his second victim. Why is my ankle so itchy? One leg shakes as I scratch the other. He nods to the young man.
“I am innocent!” He declares, causing the crowd to throw a tantrum. “I did not --” he continues, as hundreds batter him with kernels. “I did not do anything wrong!” Kid, shut up. My leg persists. The itch worsens.
“Silence!” Headset Man speaks. The crowd sits down and shuts up. He gives a cup to the young man who then slaps it out of his hand. I feel the crowd clawing to take care of the him themselves.
“I’m not drinking that. I don’t deserve this. I did nothing wrong!” He keeps going. “My name is Alex Gonza, and I am innocent!” Kid, shut up. They’re gonna kill you. “I should be free!”
Headset Man returns with a replenished cup and two guards. Each grabs one of Alex’s arms. “What are you doing?” Headset Man brings the cup to his mouth. “No, no, no!” Headset Man tips the cup, but he refuses to drink. He seals his lips and shakes his head back and forth. Two more guards are motioned to help. One steadies his head, and the other forces open his jaw. Headset Man pours the poison into his mouth as he kicks and pulls against them. The chains rattle. Kid, you always say too much. Either you drown or you’re given another life. After seven more kicks, he settles. After six seconds, Headset Man and the guards let him go. He finds his footing again and scoffs. On the screens, I see his eyes well up for a second. Then, he seems to fold over. I never thought I’d imagine a rat crying. I’m sorry, Kid.
As the crowd roars with applause, I leave. Hood up, head down. Criminal convictions were dismantled once corruption ranging from local to federal courts was uncovered. The one thing people hate more than rats is judges. A Bastille-esque rebellion took it all down, in anger and in vain. Now, a self-appointed militia of bogus quotas and a lottery-like structure determines who to incriminate. Luck only benefits you when you’re prepared.
You shouldn’t have been there. Wrong place, wrong time, Kid. I didn’t know a bag of chips meant so damn much. I didn’t know the militia was right outside. I didn’t know your limp was that bad. Kid, I’m sorry. I was prepared to run faster.
I make it to the arena gate. I check the sign for the train station and pat the money in my pocket, when I hear an off-beat pitter-patter. I turn around to see a limping rat behind me. Kid, what are you gonna do? I said sorry. Now, go live your life, and I’ll live mine.