Life Finds a Way

All There in the (Monster) Manual are stories based on creatures from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. Over 2022 I released a different story fitting the theme every single week and I’ve now expanded to Dungeons & Dragons’ Monsters of the Multiverse and even the Pathfinder Bestiary. Could be fantasy, science fiction, horror, or something else entirely! Check them out on the main page of the website.

This Week’s Inspiration: Cranium Rats

The streets are clean thanks to the city’s new garbage disposal units, removing not just litter but a great deal of the vermin who fed on it as well. But not everything is moving on, some are finding new ways to make it through a changing world.


Since the city installed the new waste disposal units, the streets had been much, much cleaner. No more piles of garbage clogging gutters. No more tourists hopscotching down filthy sidewalks. No more rats swarming in alleyways or sprinting literally underfoot from one pile to the next. No more homeless people rooting through mounds of trash bags like truffle pigs, splitting them open and spilling their contents everywhere.

Walking to work, Lisa saw a man about to toss his empty coffee cup into the street. He hesitated and then carried it with him to the end of the block where two of the disposal units waited. Both brightly marked, one for refuse and one for recycling. The refuse unit’s lid gave way with a slight hiss, like a seal being broken, and the man pushed his cup inside before going on his way. At this time of evening, sun gently sinking in the peach sky to the west, the sidewalks should have been thick with litter and the bins overflowing. But the waste disposal units never overflowed and signage reminding people to use them was everywhere. Election season was coming up after all, the bins were one of the city government’s biggest successes and they wanted to make sure everyone was aware of them.

Cheap neon crackled on the rooftop of Pied Pizza as Lisa walked through the front doors. Their sign flickered between a full pizza and one with a slice missing. Lisa said hello to the hostess on duty and headed into the back to drop off her stuff. The dozen booths and sprawl of tables across the dining area were almost all empty at that time of evening. Middle of the week, it wasn’t likely to get busy. Lisa stripped off her sweater, already wearing her uniform underneath, and stuffed it and her handbag into one of the staff cubbyholes. Two other waitstaff lingered at the edge of the kitchen, Roberta and Alison. Two of the cooks, Bennett and Jaxon, prepped the kitchen for the dinner rush.

“It’s so much nicer to walk to work since the city put in those new garbage bins,” Lisa said. “There’s not trash and crap all over the sidewalks. There’s no rats, no smell.”

“Tell me about it, it used to be the worst.” Alison rolled her eyes. “Couple of months ago I went out and, like, ruined, I mean ruined, a brand new, two hundred dollar pair of heels that were super cute.”

“It does look nicer,” Roberta said.

“They’re not really garbage bins,” Bennett said as he pounded some fresh dough.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, they’re all connected by tubes under the street, like vacuum tubes. That’s why they never overflow and they never need to be emptied. They suck all the trash away to these central places to be disposed of. It costs a lot of money.”

“Whatever they are, they’re working,” Roberta said.

“Before they installed the industrial one behind the restaurant, that alley used to be disgusting,” Bennett admitted. “Every night there’d be hundreds of rats out there. Hundreds.”

“Hundreds?” Lisa echoed. “Where’d they all go?”

“They’ll all starve to death,” Alison said. “Good, they can all, like, die somewhere else.”

“They won’t all starve,” Jaxon piped in. “Life, uh, finds a way.”

“What’s that from?” Bennett recognised the quote and cadence but not enough to identify its source.

“Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park. Life, uh, finds a way.”

Bennett turned back to the waitresses. “You wait until the system screws up and shuts down at some point. It’ll be ten times worse all over again. I bet they’re just hoping it doesn’t happen before the election.”

Lisa, Roberta, and Alison took turns cycling between back of house and the dining room as customers started to float in. The hostess, Marie, divided them between sections as evenly as she could. For a Wednesday, it was busier than Lisa expected. Not busy, but busier than normal. Almost half the tables and booths filled out as they got to the middle of the dinner rush. At one point, she wondered if the cleaner streets might have something to do with it. Maybe people really did feel better about venturing out when there was less garbage and rats, and homeless people, to avoid. She hoped the homeless folk had at least moved on to something better. She didn’t think much more about the rats.

Having just checked out one of her tables, Lisa was lingering by the hostess station when the door smacked open. Someone hit it too hard from the other side and both young women jumped. A man, Lisa thought it was a man but she couldn’t be sure, staggered and swayed inside. For a moment, Lisa and Marie just stared.

The new customer wore a broad-brimmed sun hat and a trench coat that trailed all the way to the floor. The coat looked dirty and Lisa got an unpleasant whiff of animal fur. Its edges were ragged and grey. Beneath the hat and coat they wore a hoodie, the hood pulled up and pulled tight. A red scarf wrapped the lower half of their face and their eyes were covered by some kind of ski goggles or eye protection. The lenses were too opaque for Lisa to see their eyes. In fact, Lisa couldn’t see an inch of skin across their entire face and neck. All she spotted was a bit of brownish hair poking out the edges of their hood. They weren’t very tall for a man, if they were a man. Only around as tall as Lisa herself but with a stout build.

“Um, hello, welcome to Pied Pizza.” Marie recovered first. “Would you like a table? For one?

The customer didn’t say anything. Lisa wondered if, given their state of dress, they might be one of the homeless population she’d been thinking about. Suddenly, however, as if to prove they had money, the customer raised one hand and thrust a wad of cash at the two young women. Their hands were covered as well. Their right hand, the one holding the money, wore a grungy red oven mitt. The other hand hid inside a large green mitten with fingers that dangled limply from their sleeve.

“No, that’s okay? You pay after,” Marie said. “I’ll get you a table, one moment.”

Marie looked down at her booking sheet and the laminated map of the restaurant’s seating behind the hostess station, not that she needed to. Lowering her voice, she turned toward Lisa.

“Is it alright if I seat them in your section?”

“Sure, that’s fine I guess?” Lisa said.

Marie straighted, picking up a menu and some utensils. “Right this way, thank you!”

Lisa followed at a distance as Marie guided the new customer across the restaurant. A few other patrons gave them funny looks or even wrinkled their noses as the trio passed. The strange customer didn’t seem to walk so much as glide, their dirty trench coat trailing. Their movements, however, were far from graceful. Their shoulders sagged and slumped, and their whole frame jerked around as they moved.

Marie tried to seat the new customer at one of the smaller tables in Lisa’s section but they moved of their own accord to a booth in the corner. Marie looked back at Lisa. They weren’t supposed to seat groups of only one or two people in the booths but the restaurant wasn’t full enough for them to really worry so Lisa shrugged it off. Marie set the menu and cutlery down then returned to her station while Lisa moved in after her. The customer settled, dropping both arms on the table. They didn’t remove their hat or gloves.

“Hi, I’m Lisa, I’ll be your waitress this evening! Can I start you off with some water or something to drink?”

The customer only stared and said nothing. Lisa decided it couldn’t hurt so she left to go to the water station and returned with a carafe and a single glass. The customer stared at the carafe as if they didn’t know what to do with it so Lisa took the liberty of pouring them a glass herself.

“I’ll give you a couple of minutes to decide,” Lisa said.

Lisa checked in with a couple of other tables then went to hover at the wait station outside the kitchen. She watched to see what the new customer did. Awkwardly, shakily, the customer took the glass of water in both hands. They raised it to their mouth but didn’t remove the scarf, seemingly pushing the glass between two folds in the material. In one motion, they tipped and drained the entire glass in one swallow before resting it back on the table.

“What’s with the weirdo in your section?” Roberta returned from a circuit on the floor. “Are they wearing goggles, and oven mitts?”

“Maybe it’s a COVID thing?” Lisa said. “They could be immunocompromised or something.”

“They’re weird as hell. Are you sure they’re not homeless or something?”

“They had money, they showed it to us before they sat down.”

Lisa watched as the strange customer contended with the menu. Leaving it on the table, they slapped it open and scanned page by page. They seemed more taken with the pictures than the words. When it felt like long enough had passed, Lisa returned to the booth. After refilling their water glass, she took out her pad and pencil.

“Did you know what you’d like to order, or should I give you a few more minutes?”

The customer didn’t speak but they fumbled their way back to the appetiser page of the menu. Since dropping into the booth, their body seemed to have conformed to their seat in a way that made them look oddly shapeless. Their arms didn’t appear to joint together like a normal person. Maybe they were in some way deformed, Lisa thought, and her heart ached a little for them if they felt the need to cover up to such an extent just to go out in public. They pointed with their oven mitt at a picture of some garlic bread. Their hand bulged inside the mitt and Lisa found it easy to imagine it as some kind of flipper instead of a regular, five-fingered hand.

“Garlic bread? You’d like a garlic bread?” Lisa said.

The customer said nothing, only staring. They pointed harder at the garlic bread, a gesture that Lisa interpreted as ‘more’.

“Two garlic breads? You’d like two to start off with?”

After a few moments, the customer slowly inclined their head in a nod. Turning their goggles back to the menu, they fumbled to the next page. Lisa scratched ‘GB x 2’ onto her notepad. The customer studied for a minute and then gestured insistently at another picture.

“Lasagna? You want a lasagna for mains? Okay.”

The customer only inclined their head slowly, and then pulled it back as if it were too heavy for their neck. Lisa could hear wheezing noises of some sort coming from under the scarf, although they seemed too high pitched for breathing. The customer continued, picking out a pepperoni pizza and a charcuterie board meant for groups of four. When Lisa checked they were sure that’s what they wanted they only nodded, gaining enthusiasm as if becoming more familiar with the gesture.

“Alright, well, if that’s everything? Did you want anything to drink or are you happy with the water?”

The customer didn’t say anything so Lisa returned to the wait station to put in the order. They’d ordered enough for a party of six. Word was already spreading about her weird customer. Lisa knew they had money but she hoped they actually had enough for everything.

The garlic bread came out quickly. Lisa delivered it, butter steaming, to the table. Hovering, she told them to enjoy but the silent customer seemed unwilling to touch the food while she was still there. Retreating again to the wait station, she watched furtively. All the other staff also made excuses to watch from the kitchen or to circle around in that direction.

The customer didn’t bother pulling the pieces of garlic bread apart. Fumbling, they raised one whole baguette to their mouth. Their scarf moved and to Lisa’s mixed amazement and disgust they appeared to deepthroat the entire appetiser. The bread disappeared into their face in a single assembly line, inhaled. It was like watching a cartoon character eat an enormously oversized sandwich. Lisa wasn’t sure she could even see them chewing.

“What is their deal?” Alison said, sounding judgemental but not as shocked or disgusted as Lisa felt.

“I’m-, uh, I’m not sure,” Lisa said. “I thought maybe they were handicapped, or different in some way, and that’s why they’re dressed like that?”

Their mystery diner fumbled with the second garlic bread and Lisa wondered if they were about to repeat the same performance. Instead, however, they shiftily moved the bread to their coat and shoved it through a fold in the piece of clothing. Maybe they were saving it for later, Lisa thought, and she reassessed whether they might be homeless. She couldn’t help noticing how a rippling motion went through the customer’s coat. Almost as if they had a second pair of jaws down there that were busy chewing and swallowing the baguette.

Several groups of diners paid and went on their way. By the time the strange customer’s food was ready, most of Lisa’s section was empty. The lasagna, pizza, and the charcuterie board all appeared in the serving window at the same time. Jaxon hovered behind them.

“Those are for the weirdo’s table, right?” Jaxon asked.

Lisa felt defensive on the customer’s behalf but didn’t see how she could possibly argue they weren’t weird. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“They’re going to eat this all by themselves?”

“I guess so.”

Lisa made two trips to deliver the food. The customer gave no thanks but had no complaints either. An almost excited wheezing seemed to come from inside their coat. Ripples ran the length of their arms and shoulders. They still hesitated to touch anything until Lisa left the table.

“Are they really going to eat all that?” Roberta said, as Lisa returned to the wait station.

“Jax just asked me the same thing. They might be saving some of it for later, I just saw them stick a garlic bread in their coat.”

The customer’s head swivelled in their direction. Lisa and Roberta both glanced away and tried to look busy. Nothing showed behind the customer’s goggles. They went back to their meal and Lisa, Roberta, and several of the other staff went back to watching.

The customer ignored their utensils. Scooping up the quivering square of lasagna whole, they smeared sauce and melted cheese across their dirty oven mitt. Their other hand loosened their collar and pulled at their scarf. Lisa couldn’t see what was behind the scarf from where she was standing. Without hesitation, the customer shoved the hot square of pasta and meat into their mouth. Lisa couldn’t believe it. She would have struggled to finish the lasagna in one sitting, but the customer gulped it in seconds.

“That’s disgusting,” Alison said.

Ignoring the lasagna’s side salad, the customer clumsily pushed its plate aside and reached for the pizza. Pulling at it, Lisa saw the customer jam the first slice into their coat. They did the same with the second slice, and Lisa could swear she saw their chest writhing and squirming, like it was full of insects or something.

The customer tore through the pizza almost as fast as the lasagna. Lisa didn’t see any slices go near their mouth, however. They kept slipping slices into their coat or dropping them into their lap. Lisa even thought a couple of slices must have disappeared right up their sleeves. She was disgusted to think of the cheese, sauce, and bits of pepperoni falling apart inside the stranger’s pockets.

Finally, the customer attacked the charcuterie board. The wooden plank was meant as an appetiser for four or more people. Cured meat and cubes of cheese, crackers, and olives. The customer’s gloves made it awkward to grab but they’d dropped all pretence of fine dining, shovelling the food into their coat or pockets or sleeves, only pouring a few handfuls under the scarf covering their face.

“Are you sure they can pay?” Roberta asked.

“They had money!” Lisa said. “I don’t know, I wasn’t going to interrogate them because they looked weird! But this is-, uh, I don’t know what this is.”

The customer’s coat rippled, rising and falling. They readjusted the scarf over their mouth, still wearing their goggles and hat. A couple of families paid and left. Other tables could have used attention but the waitresses were all too distracted. Eventually, with all the meals demolished if not eaten, Lisa decided she’d better circle back to the table.

“How was everything?” Lisa asked nervously. “That’s okay, you don’t have to say anything, I guess you liked it? Is there anything else I can get you?”

The customer struggled to pull themselves upright. They must have been full and sleepy after what they’d eaten, nevermind the stuff they’d hidden in their coat. Melted cheese and food debris covered their gloves and clothing. Gradually, they managed to move their head from side to side.

“Okay, uh, would you like the bill, or-,” Lisa trailed off.

The customer shoved themselves sideways and stumbled, over the course of more than ten seconds, to their feet. Lisa was taken aback and retreated a couple of steps. With their weird slumping, gliding walk, the customer limped toward the hostess stations.

“Hey, wait,” Lisa said.

Lisa thought the customer might be attempting to run off without paying after all but they swayed to a stop at the hostess’ station. Marie looked at them in confusion.

“Oh, the bill? Would you like to pay?” Marie said.

Marie turned to her computer and began to bring up the stranger’s bill. The customer reached into the pocket of their coat and pushed it toward Marie. Money scattered across the hostess station. Marie looked taken aback. Most of the cash was crumpled and stained.

“Um, I don’t think this is enough,” Marie said. “Let me just have a look?”

The customer reached into their pocket again and hurled more cash at Marie. Mixed amongst the money were several debit cards. Lisa circled the hostess station. She could tell just by glancing at them that the names on the cards didn’t match.

“Hey, what is this?” Lisa said. “We can’t take these.”

The customer reeled backward and slammed into the restaurant’s front entrance, letting out a slightly panicked squeal. Body swaying, they pushed through the door and stumbled onto the sidewalk.

“Hey, you need to pay your bill!” Lisa said.

They’d been told not to chase anyone who dined and dashed, or to even try to stop them. And the customer had at least attempted to pay, there might have been enough cash amidst the bunch they’d tossed over to cover them. But curiosity and some natural chase impulse drove Lisa to follow them out the door.

Looking around, Lisa spotted the customer hustling down the sidewalk. Their body quaked as if ready to fall apart at any second, arms wobbling. The few people walking or driving past didn’t pay them much notice.

“Hey, stop! Come back here!” Lisa said.

Lisa followed the customer for half a block. At the speed they travelled, she could have easily caught up but she stopped short of confronting them physically. Suddenly, the customer veered toward the street. Lisa worried they were about to throw themselves in front of a passing car. They stopped, however, right over the top of a sewer drain. It was as if their foot had gotten stuck or something, and Lisa slowed to a walk.

Spasming, the stranger began to lose shape. They shrank in on themselves, their gloves falling away and their coat going limp. Their hat and hoodie collapsed to their shoulders. It was as if they were melting inside their clothes, like the Wicked Witch of the West, and draining into the sewer.

By the time Lisa reached them, the stranger was gone. Their dirty coat puddled on top of the drain along with their hat and goggles. They’d disappeared. Without thinking, Lisa picked up the coat but she found it empty except for a bunch of sticks. Mop or broom handles with their ends gnawed that might have formed the bones of whatever had filled the coat. It wasn’t quite empty, she realised, as she found a squirming lump. A single rat exploded from the coat. Shrieking, it sprinted off down the sidewalk. A couple of weeks ago, there would have been piles of garbage for it to disappear into but as they’d discussed that evening, the garbage was all gone. The rat kept running until it turned into the dark of an alleyway.

Still carrying the coat, Lisa returned to the restaurant. Bennett and Jaxon ran to meet her. They must have heard what had happened and come to help. Jaxon pulled up first and looked at Lisa holding the customer’s coat in confusion.

“Are you okay? What happened?” Jaxon asked.

“Life, uh, finds a way,” Lisa replied.


Sean: As I’ve mentioned before, I love swarms. Man, I should write about more swarms of stuff! I’m also generally pretty sympathetic toward rats, I’ve never owned any but I think they’re really cute, intelligent, and intriguing creatures and I like writing about them. In saying that, I did have one idea last year for a more ‘traditional’ swarm of rats in the style of James Herbert that I never got around to writing but still might. Cranium rats, worth noting, did not make it into the actual Dungeons & Dragons’ Monster Manual. Last year I had a rule that, although I was aware of a few other potential monsters that didn’t make the cut, I was only going to use creatures from the Monster Manual itself. Now though, since I was gifted both Monsters of the Multiverse and the Pathfinder Bestiary for my last birthday I’ve decided to expand my view a little bit…

If you’d like an insight into my deep and meaningful writerly process, often when I have to name a minor character, or even a major character, I just look at whatever happens to be in my immediate line of sight. I happened to be reading American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett when I wrote the first draft of this story, hence the names Roberta, Jaxon, and Bennett. I know, I really extend myself sometimes. Great book by the way, some Lovecraftian themes in an unsettling Americana package.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s