The Kashgar Rat


There’s no breeze, and I’m pretty sure this tanker ship hasn’t moved in hours. We must be anchored in Frisco. Three of us were herded into this crate on deck almost twelve hours ago. It was damn hot until sunset. I sucked my jeans dry after pissing myself, but I’m still thirsty. The air reeks from the other two, “Puppy” and “Fatso.” At least we’re on deck—the engine room heat nearly killed us and no one cared if it did.

I call the youngster Puppy. His family pitched in to buy this “berth.” He told me what they paid, and it’s way more than I did, but why tell? He had it easy in China, poor but never hungry. The muscled guy is “Fatso.” He’s sneers at us because he’s stronger, which is natural, but if he’d ever fought a rat over food, he’d know better. He has some American pseudo-uncle who paid his way:

“He wants to help my family,” he boasts. I’m betting Uncle’s adopting a new slave for some pissant ghetto grocery store, but I keep quiet. “His daughter’s a babe. A real American girl. I’m gonna own that store. And her!” Sure you are, big guy.

He makes a joke to scare Puppy, saying the mobsters running this boat will probably kill us. A good guess. But I didn’t survive three years in hiding just to die here.

When my face appeared on TV, I fled to Canton to hide in the crowd. Back in Kashgar, especially if you’re local, cops constantly hassle you—looking for agitators, for bribes, for pretty sisters. But I never had to show ID in Canton; work sixteen-hour days for starvation wages and nobody cares about papers. I hear the same’s true in Frisco.

I scrimped for three years to buy my way out. I knew I’d leave Canton but never for where until the plastics factory showed me. One day we were painting life-size baby dolls with holes in them. It was just too much.

“What kind of sick freaks put baby dolls in sex shops?” I asked. The guy beside me laughed so hard we almost got caught talking.

“They’re for Americans,” he explained. “They buy their children dolls that crap.”

That became my destination: only the richest place on earth could afford such stupidity.

Wham! A sailor crowbars the crate open and a flashlight stabs my eyes.

“Move it!” We stumble onto the deck. The crew opens other crates, herding twenty of us together. The sailors are shouting at each other and flapping their arms. Other ships are anchored all around. I see city lights covering distant hills.

“Get to the rail!” The yelling sailor is nervous, so I cower as I pass. I think I hear a helicopter throbbing but maybe it’s my heart. On the far side of the ship, they’re prepping a launch when I hear other motors.

Spotlights burst from above. Twin police boats speed toward us, loudspeakers spewing gibberish.


I turn towards the voice as a sailor flips Puppy headfirst over the side. I won’t need a push—nothing waits for me back home but a blindfold and a bullet. I’ve got one leg over the railing when someone kidney punches me and yanks me down.

“Where’s your roll?!” Fatso drops my arm as he gropes for my money with both hands.

Small men can’t give second chances, and my instincts and training remember what I’ve tried to forget. I elbow his temple until his eyes glaze over; then do it again. Cops and sailors battle all around as I drag him into an empty crate. I take his papers. He even has fifty bucks! “Uncle’s” address is in a pocket alongside a candy bar. I wolf it down and dive off the rail into the dark.

Surfacing far from the ship, there are no lights nearby. I spin to determine where the shore is closest, then begin my sidestroke. Stupid, fat bastard, why’d he—I gotta focus! Control my breathing. I’m tired, but the water is neither hot nor cold. I can do this. The swim will give me time to compose my story. I hope that daughter’s pretty.

~ fin ~

Zakariah Johnson has been a mink rancher, commercial fisherman, and repeated target of hungry polar bears. His short fiction appears in Shotgun Honey, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Yellow Mama, and other fine outlets. Zakariah hails from NH where it juts up like New England's defiant middle finger, and has recently finished his novel "The Cutting Game," a knife-laden kidnapping tale set in the White Mountains.