Black Bled the Prairie is set in an unnamed North Dakotan boomtown around 2014. It follows a host of characters (detectives, a reporter, an ex-con and his estranged daughter, the teenage son of a local farmer, a false priest and others) as they find themselves circling the fringes of a horrific human trafficking ring with ties to the occult.
BLACK BLED THE PRAIRIE is told in a disjointed, out of order style, so don't worry about spoiling yourself. Enjoy the free chapters included below, and contact the author for your own copy today.
Chapter Two — The Glass Eye
The dead woman hung from a spike embedded in the wall of the building. Crisp autumn wind guttered through the alleyway and tugged at the gossamer silks slung around the corpse’s shoulders. She had a doll’s hair. It hung heavy down the sides of her perfect face. A rusty piece of rebar jutted from a bloodless wound in her chest, the tip polished sharp.
Penny patted the inside pocket of her suit jacket, looking for cigarettes that were no longer there. She bit the inside of her lip, counted to ten. Coffee would be great right now. Her finger scratched at her palm.
“Hey detective, sorry to keep you waiting,” said Pedersen. Ay detective, soory to keep ya waitin’. He bumbled over to her. Pedersen had the body and face of a walrus. The thick layers of winter clothing he insisted on wearing only exacerbated that image.
Layers, he had told her once. Ya doun know when yer gahna need ‘em. Pedersen’s dad had lost a toe to frostbite in ’92 while digging his rig out of a snow bank. The old man was weirdly proud of the injury. He liked showing the stub off at parties, Penny had learned.
“No problem, Tim,” she replied. “What’ve you got?”
“Pretty much the same as the others, ya know?” he started. “’Cept she’s Native as far as we can tell. We’ve notified BIA and the res cops, but they got so many Native girls going missing…” He shrugged. “Other’n that? Well, she’s got no blood and something’s been done to her skin. Ya can’t tell from down here, but you see the coroner’s photos and you can tell. And she don’t stink, which is weird.”
“She doesn’t stink?” Penny asked.
“No, strange I know, but she’s got no smell to ’er at all,” he replied with a shrug. “I’ll tell ya, these murders have been just the strangest goddamn… oh, oh hell with it. Mac.” Pedersen motioned to a nearby cop, a younger guy Penny hadn’t seen before, and pointed at the roof of the building on the opposite side of the alley. “Clear that damn reporter off the roof.”
Penny followed Pedersen’s eyes up to the roof of the building and spotted the reporter. Skinny guy, medium height, Penny had talked to him before about a different case, a parking lot shooting near the start of the school year. He had a long, white lens trained on the body. He turned the lens toward her as Mac jogged off into the building.
She felt her heart flutter. The wind picked up, roaring, ripping Pedersen’s patrol cap off and sending it tumbling across the street through the legs of a crowd of onlookers. The world slowed like a pendulum reaching the crescendo of its arc, halting. The glass eye met her own. Even from a distance she could feel it, could see it pulsating inside the metal tube as it focused on her. The pendulum swung, the moment passed.
The reporter lowered the lens and raised his hand. Somehow, the gesture felt unfamiliar. His face remained shadowed by a nondescript grey baseball cap. He stood and left. She kept her eyes on the spot, but he didn’t return. A moment later Mac came into view, red-faced and panting. He waved down to her, pointed to the roof behind him and shrugged. She motioned for him to come back down and then walked over to the crime scene.
“Oh, hey Hasselblad,” said Detective Romon, jotting something down on a clipboard. A sandwich wrapper jutted out from the pocket of his long woolen raincoat. Breadcrumbs speckled the wrapped layers of his red scarf. Penny said hi back to him and then brushed his scarf down. “Oh, shit, thanks.”
“Yeah,” she said. “What’s up?”
“Well, her, obviously,” he said, jutting a thumb up at the corpse. Penny looked up as a breeze caught the silks, shedding sunlight on a graying breast. She clucked her tongue, bit the inside of her lip. “Forensic dudes’re finishing up now and then we’ve got to clear out that crowd to get a crane through to take down the body. Boss man said the FBI guys’re calling this guy ‘The Lepidopterist.’”
“Lepidopterist?” Penny asked.
“Thirty-dollar word for butterfly collector,” Romon said. “Federal guys always seem to have a bad case of smart-fuck-itis. Boss man’s convinced they want to drum up a little press around this one so somebody special can solve it and get transferred the fuck away from the Great Plains. They’re probably going to take it over within the week.” He picked at his chin. “They can have it, far as I’m concerned.”
“Agreed,” Penny said. She couldn’t remember the last time the department hadn’t been overburdened. The oil boom hadn’t changed much in her opinion, just made more of everything. More money, more drugs, more assholes selling drugs, more assholes buying drugs and fucking themselves up on the highway, more DUIs, more hookers, more domestics, more overtime, more paperwork and more stupid bullshit like women hanging on spikes on the sides of buildings. It was nice to see the feds finally showing a little concern. They rarely seemed to give a fuck, and Penny wasn’t going to put money on their attention lasting much time at all.
In college, one of her professors had assigned a short story to the class written by a famous dead guy, a hard slog of a read about some kid on a steamboat crew headed for Thailand. He sets out for adventure but just ends up trying to keep the shitty old boat afloat from port to port. She’d thought the story dumb at the time. After all, she was going to become a hero cop and break the biggest case her little town had ever seen. Plenty of time for that now.
“Jackass writer couldn’t even spell Bangkok right,” she said under her breath.
“What?” Romon asked. Somehow, he had made a cup of coffee appear in his right hand. Smoke curled up from the styrofoam rim.
“Nothing,” she replied. She pointed at the cup. “Where did you get that?”
“Pedersen like, just walked by and gave me one,” Romon said. Lifting the cup a bit. “He asked if you wanted some but you were off in La La Land.”
“Shit,” she said. “I could kill for a coffee right now.”
“I’d just hop down the street if I were you,” he said, tapping one of the forensics guys on the back with the clipboard and handing it over to him. “It’s not like you need to be here anyway. Half the damn force is just standing around in this cordon right now, like maybe public opinion can un-kill this broad if only we stand around doing nothing hard enough.” He shook his head and took a sip of coffee. It burned him. “Ahh.”
Show of force, folks, Chief had said over the radio while Penny raced from the gym to the crime scene. Everybody who’s not somebody is on that cordon until I’m damn well sure all the good people of this city know they can sleep well under the watch of their beloved police force. The 20 officers on the cordon made up just under half of the entire city’s police force. Penny wondered what sort of god-awful mischief people might be getting up to if they knew the cops were indisposed for the next few hours.
The cordon had its merits, and the cops had plenty to do inside the scene, but, save for a miracle, the trail had gone cold long before they arrived.
The best lead they had at the moment was a report from two nights ago about a vagrant living in an illegally parked truck in the alley. Nobody had followed up on it then. There wasn’t an alley in town that didn’t have an illegally parked camper in it at night these days.
Penny slapped Romon on the shoulder and left the cordon, proceeding through the blocked-off alley opposite the street to avoid the grasping, questioning mob gathering on the sidewalk. She glanced back at the crime scene as she left. Cops had started erecting thick, black partitions beside the body to prevent street views of the corpse, an attempt to protect the victim’s identity until the family was notified. The only way to get a good look at the body is from the cordon or the roof of the building across the street.
She thought about the reporter, the organic pulse of the glass inside his lens. Nimble fucker, she admitted. Next time she saw him she’d have to ask him how he got off the roof without Mac getting ahold of him.
Penny mumbled some half-assed small talk with the two cops blocking off the alley. They leaned back against the side of their cruiser as she walked away and got back on the topic of whether the Vikings’ defensive coordinator should be hung or shot for his ineptitude in the first half of the regular season. The consensus seemed to lean toward hanging at the moment, and slowly, “like them Iranians do.”
Even with a possible mass-murderer on the loose, an oil boom in full swing and the midmorning sun hanging in a haze behind the clouds, Main Street was relatively quiet. Two old ladies in matching pink knit caps sat on lawn chairs on the corner, watching the commotion a block away and sharing a thermos of soup. They waved to Penny as she passed. “Did you hear?” She nodded.
The coffee shop was another block away. In about five minutes, she had crossed nearly half the city on foot. Not a big city, but it was hers. A strong gust of wind kicked up and bit into her skin through the suit jacket and the nylon windbreaker over it. She zipped up the jacket and shoved her hands in her pockets. Probably time to break out the heavy-duty winter gear.
Layers, Pedersen said in the back of her mind, Ya doun know when yer gahna need ‘em. She thought about wispy silk fluttering in the wind.
Penny opened the door to the coffee shop and bumped hard into a man coming out.
“Hey,” she started before realizing whom she had bumped into. The reporter from the roof stood in front of her, a tattered brown scarf wrapped around the lower part of his face, but unmistakably him. A camera, with a short, black lens this time, was slung crosswise around his shoulders. His hat looked much worse for wear up close. In fact, he generally looked… worn. His eyes went wide when they met hers.
“I’m… sorry,” he said. His voice sounded like it was about to crack. She noticed he didn’t have a cup of coffee.
“It’s fine,” she said. Penny could tell how bad he wanted to leave, but she stayed blocking the exit. “I know you’ve got a job to do, but you’re gonna cause some damage if you put out photos as graphic as what’s hanging on that wall.”
“What?” he asked. He looked genuinely confused.
“The woman…” Penny looked up the aisle at the few other customers in the shop. None of them were paying attention, but she leaned in and dropped her voice anyway. “The woman hanging on the wall two blocks down. We saw you taking pictures from the roof.” Saw that lens of yours, the other one, felt it when you pointed it at me.
“Oh, um,” he spent a few seconds checking his watch. “Yeah, uh, that was today. Sorry about that.” He looked over her shoulder, backward over his own and then met her eyes. His were brown, she noted. “I’ve got to go.” He stepped aside to pass her but she put a hand on his chest. He didn’t struggle with her.
“One more thing,” she said. He met her eyes. She barely knew him, so why did he feel so goddamn familiar? “How did you get off that roof without Ma—Officer Macintosh—running into you?”
He put the tips of his fingers on the back of her hands, she noticed then that he was wearing gloves, and gently pushed them down off his chest. Instinctively, she rubbed her fingertips against her palm, thinking of breadcrumbs.
“I just stepped through a door,” he said.
“Smart ass,” she replied. She crossed her arms, stepping aside and nodding her head toward the door. He stood there for a moment. His eyes locked with hers, deathly serious and somehow sad.
“Goodbye, Penny,” he said, and then he left. The little brass bell over the door seemed to ring forever. Penny felt frozen. She stared at the spot where he had just stood. The void he left felt more real than he did. She felt that if she just reached out she could touch…
“Ma’am?” said a voice from behind the counter. A tired-looking girl in Buddy Holly frames and pink highlights stood behind the register. “Are you waiting for pickup?”
“No… no,” Penny said, shaking her head and walking up to the counter. She gave the girl her order—large, dark, black—and turned back to the door. Red and blue lights reflected in flashes off the shop windows across the street.
Too strange a day to have only just begun, she thought. And that reporter… She remembered talking with him a few times before, but he felt so familiar. Was he dressed that heavily on the roof? A scarf, heavy gloves and a sweater peeking out from beneath his coat. The girl behind the register handed Penny a coffee and, without thinking, she took a sip and burned her tongue.
Layers, said Pedersen in the back of her mind.
CHAPTER 7 — SLOW TIME
Jon Stenehjem patted the head of his old golden retriever and told the man in the black suit, “No.” The man smiled, and when did he ever not smile, and left. That was Monday.
“Don’t like him much, do we Moxy?” Jonny asked the dog. Moxy was getting on her years, but she smiled all the same and gave his palm a few short licks. Jonny watched the man make the long, slow drive down off his property. A fat, brown cloud of dust followed the sleek red muscle car until it shrank to a black speck on the horizon, and then it was gone. “Smelled funny, didn’t he girl? I did like that car of his though, didn’t you?” Moxy gave him another lick and then trotted out into the yard. She did her business by the big tree and then made her way back inside to her spot by the couch. Jonny smiled at her, made himself a sandwich and ate it. He winked at Mary’s picture on the fridge as he cleaned off his plate in the sink and then went to bed.
On Tuesday, it started to snow.
“Well, if that isn’t the most God-damned thing,” Jonny said, watching the white pack up in drifts against the side of the old silo by the house. He looked at his watch and remembered it wasn’t on his wrist and then went inside. Moxy sniffed at the cold from inside the door. She used to love playing in the snow, but nowadays winter just stiffened her up and made her feel creaky. “What d’ya think of that, girl? Snowing like that in September. We should write the county commission, shouldn’t we? Someone’s gonna get fired over this.” Moxy walked over to him and wiggled her butt and woofed. He laughed.
“That’s right, isn’t it? Ole Jonny Stenehjem and Moxy won’t stand for it, will they?”
Moxy rubbed up against his leg and he scratched her head. Too damn early for snow, isn’t it? He thought. His marks on the fridge calendar only led up to the end of September. He looked around for the red marker he used to cross the dates out, but couldn’t find it. Moxy whined at him and he fed and watered her.
“Not going to get a paper today, am I girl?” He asked the dog as she crunched through a bowl of Purina. “Can’t drive to town and the paper doesn’t come here anymore.” He scratched above her tail while she ate. “How’m I gonna know what’s going on without my paper?” He fixed himself some eggs and ate at the table.
“Mary,” he said to the black and white picture on the wall. “Why don’t things ever just get easier?” Mary didn’t say anything and he went back to eating. Moxy started barking and he jumped half out of his skin.
“Moxy?” He yelled rather than asked. “Moxy, girl, what is it?” He tottered through the kitchen and into the living room to find Moxy growling pitifully at something on the floor. She whined, and accidently snarled at him when he passed her. A flat, black centipede, its body as thick as his pinky finger, sat motionlessly on the floor. Its antennae twitched as he approached. “Centipede?”
He moved to step on it without thinking but it outpaced his foot and disappeared beneath the couch. Moxy yelped and ran from the room, brushing Jonny’s leg.
“Jesus,” he said, nearly falling.
He avoided sitting on the couch for the rest of the day and all through Tuesday. Moxy stayed quiet that day, avoiding the living room and refusing to go through the front door to do her outside business. Jonny couldn’t blame her. He knew he would spend the night tossing and turning and thinking of fat black centipedes crawling over his arms and legs. He shuddered at the thought.
Snow continued to fall outside. The steady downpour had lightened up, but he still couldn’t see beyond the garage. He thought about calling the guys down at the elevator, just to maybe see what was going on out there, but he didn’t want them worrying about him or maybe thinking he’d gone chicken shit after an early snow. He thought about maybe firing up the truck and heading to the diner, but the front stairs had gotten so steep and Jim’s boy hadn’t ever made it around last summer to fix them up. One bad spill is all it would take.
“Can’t risk that, can I girl?” He asked Moxy. She whined and licked his palm and settled down on the kitchen floor with her head on his foot. “And what would I do with you? You can’t come to the diner, can you?” He scratched behind her ear and watched her tail slide back and forth across the floor. “Well, better make myself some breakfast, huh?”
The stench of rotten eggs nearly bowled him over when he opened the door to the fridge. He choked back the urge to puke and looked around inside his fridge. Most of the perishables had gone bad. Even the milk he’d bought last week had separated. Thick curdy chunks floated in the translucent yellow liquid.
“What the hell?” He asked nobody.
Jonny bundled up and spent the next half hour dumping the rotten food outside. He took care not to slip on the snow-slick wood of the front porch. Moxy whined from inside the house, her tail tucked between her legs. Jonny shushed her and patted her head when he came back inside. She looked a little haggard herself. He fed and watered her and she ate voraciously.
“Hungry girl?” He asked her, pulling a couple frozen buffalo steaks from the freezer and dropping them in a pot of water. He left the steaks in their packaging and set the stove to medium. An hour later, the steaks had thawed and he left them frying in butter. The smell set Moxy to whining again and Jonny set her up with another bowl of food. Why not?
He sat down with the cooked steaks and a healthy helping of steak sauce and dug in. A black centipede fell from the ceiling and landed on his plate hard enough to spatter steak sauce on his face. Jonny yelled and kicked back. For a moment, the chair hung in space. He flailed his legs and arms, trying to set it right, but back he fell, hitting his head and disappearing into darkness.
Jonny woke in the cold haze of either dusk or dawn. He only knew it was dark. He coughed and tried to right himself. He had rolled off the chair after hitting his head on the refrigerator, and lay on his side on the kitchen floor. The inside of his skull felt packed full of nails and cotton. For a single terrified moment, the fear of dying alone in his kitchen after a fall grabbed his heart and immobilized him. He was nearly in tears before he could push himself to his knees.
“How… how long…Moxy?” He strained his eyes in the darkness. “Moxy girl? Moxy! Moxy, where are you? Moxy!” He fumbled around the kitchen for the light switch, nearly falling over the chair again in the darkness. He flicked it up and the light burned his eyes. Squinting, he saw the upturned chair and his now-empty plate. He could tell it had been licked clean. Flecks of dried steak sauce streaked the plate. The centipede had gone. So had Moxy.
He found her lying on her side in his bedroom. She stood and wagged her tail when she saw him, but he could see how bad it hurt her. She limped over to him and licked his hand.
“What’s the matter, girl?” He asked her. She whined and nuzzled his leg. She looked like a skeleton. Patches of her hair had gone missing. It fell out in clumps when he stroked her. “Oh, Moxy, we’re gonna’ have to get you to the vet, aren’t we?”
He turned out of the room and went back to the kitchen. He’d been out for a while. She was probably hungry. That’s it. She just needed some food.
Jonny found the pantry door hanging open. Shreds of Moxy’s empty food bag lay strewn across the pantry floor. Teeth marks marred the heavy paper scraps. He just stood there looking at the mess. He slowly closed the door.
“What’s going on?” He asked nobody. His stomach growled as he pulled a few more buffalo steaks from the fridge and set them to thaw. He grabbed an extra two for Moxy. We’ll go to the vet tomorrow and get all this fixed up, he thought, dropping the steaks into a hot pan. They sizzled and spat and the smell of them brought Moxy down to the kitchen. She stared up at him hopefully. They ate quietly.
At around noon, Jonny found that the phone lines had gone. He listened to the prerecorded lady tell him service was out. The lady told him service had been interrupted and gave him a number to call and a website to visit. He listened to the entire message before setting the phone back down on the receiver and trying again. Moxy watched him balefully from the kitchen. She still refused to go into the living room.
In the back of his head, Jonny could hear his kids complaining to him about not buying a cellphone. They knew not to even try bothering him with getting a computer.
“Get with the program, Dad.”
“Why not get a cellphone? They don’t cause cancer.”
“This wouldn’t be a problem if Mom was still around.”
“What if we need to get ahold of you and you’re out on that goddam tractor or fucking around in the garage? What if you get hurt?”
He sighed and set the phone down. Snow roared by outside the window. He imagined that leaving now would be suicide. He had a good truck, but he still had to get down a set of icy stairs, across a frozen drive and even then he had to get the damn thing started. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a centipede darting around the landing leading to the cellar door. What a fucking mess.
He looked at Moxy.
“We’ll try for it tomorrow, won’t we girl?” He asked.
The next day, Moxy had gone.
Jonny shivered as he pushed the front door shut. He had to fight against the wind to close it. The door had stayed open for a while, at least long enough to leave a two-foot-high drift of snow up against the northern wall. The snow buried the lower legs of the high-backed red armchairs and coffee table sitting beneath the big front window. No tracks lead outside, and he didn’t know how the door had gotten open, but he couldn’t find her. He’d nearly screamed himself hoarse yelling out into the cold from the front porch.
That cold bit deep. It pushed through his pajama bottoms and into his bones. Heavy winds whipped through the front door and threw his bathrobe and the wispy gray hairs at his temples into a mad frenzy. He tried to claw some warmth into his arms. It didn’t work. Fat hot tears built up in his eyes and he blinked them away.
He told himself Moxy was fine. Maybe she was curled up in the rolls of hay in the barn. He wiped frost off the window and peered out into the storm. He squinted until he saw tracks and breathed a sigh of relief.
“A bath then…,” he looked down at the empty space around him. Floor. Hairy carpet. “Yeah. A bath’ll do wonders.” A thin pool of water had built up around the snow drift where it started melting against the floor. No Moxy. He sighed and something rattled in his chest. He coughed, hard, and something thick and wet and hard hit the back of his palm. He wiped it away without looking.
The stairs felt taller and colder than usual. His feet fell lightly, but the steps still creaked. The cold had gotten into his house as well.
Jonny undressed by the sink while the water warmed. He ran his thumb over the tiny chip on the corner of the porcelain, a memento of his youngest son’s wilder days. The boy had gotten it in his head to take up the yo-yo and practice the blasted thing in his every free second. A flubbed trick had chipped the sink and ended yo-yos in the Stenehjem household indefinitely.
Jonny couldn’t remember the first time he’d run his thumb over the rough little crater, nor could he remember the last time he’d walked into the upstairs bath without doing it. He thought of his boy sitting with his own children in the rented sedan outside last summer, going on about homes and retirement and moving down to Phoenix with the family.
He wanted to tell Moxy about it but he couldn’t find her. He told himself she wouldn’t mind. She’d already heard the story a half-dozen times at least and she wouldn’t miss out on the next half-dozen.
Naked, Jonny sat on the edge of the scuffed claw-foot tub. His brother used to make fun of the thing when he visited. He’d tell Jonny and the kids that he’d seen it raise a leg to pee on the toilet, and the kids would laugh and Mary would cough and excuse herself to prod at something in the kitchen.
Jonny hated the thing too. He’d only had it hauled up and installed as a gift to Mary for their 25th anniversary. He swung his feet into the steaming water.
“The things we do for love, eh gi—“ He slid into the water without finishing the sentence.
Moxy’s absence was a presence all its own. Form and void interchanged themselves in his empty home. The vibrato moan of the wind against the house replaced her breathy pant. The floors creaked and twisted without the clack of her claws. He imagined her nose poking cold and wet into his ear to get his attention while he stewed in the bath.
Dust grew thick on the bathroom bulb. Its light rotted to the yellow of a dying liver. Jonny noticed its beams pulsing and stretching on the walls. His eyes drooped.
Jonny sucked in a dusty breath and tried to scream. It caught in his lungs. The water was a shade warmer than ice. His body seized as he tried to scramble out of the tub and he slid, fell and smacked his temple against the enameled cast-iron rim. His head swam and slipped below the surface. He sucked in a breath that was half air and half water.
He coughed. His eyes went in and out of focus. He gained purchase on the rim of the tub and nearly pushed himself up before slipping and going beneath the water.
The bulb shed its ugly yellow light on the bathroom.
Jonny turned in the tub and flung himself upwards on his knees and over the edge of the tub. Water splashed on the walls and ceiling. It hissed on the bulb for only a moment before the bulb shattered with a bang, showering Jonny with tiny bits of dusty glass. He coughed and heaved and nicked his shoulder.
Somewhere in the hacking and retching Jonny began to cry. He sucked the bitter air in through his teeth and moaned.
“Ohhh, Moxy,” he whispered in a quiet voice. The blood from his shoulder spider-webbed into the water on the floor. He prayed to God that nobody would see him this way.
But for the wind, the house remained silent.
A fat black centipede wriggled through the water. It touched its mandibles to the spreading blood and drank. Jonny shifted and the centipede scurried into a crack in the tile.
Somehow, Jonny dragged himself to bed.
The house was freezing when he awoke. Fuzzy white frost grew thick on the corners of the bedroom windows. He shivered and looked to the door. A single blue column of light from the window shone in the hallway. Ice crystals glittered in the air. He scratched at his neck with ghoulish fingernails. His knees felt like dried glue.
He needed to get to the cellar. Generator needed some help. Just need to get to the cellar. Fix that generator and everything’ll be set to rights. Jonny tried to shake somebody else’s voice out of his head.
He shuffled into his slippers, his robe and a pair of trousers.
He was wheezing by the time he made it to the bottom of the stairs. His thoughts came in cottony bursts, like somebody trying to shout through an insulated wall. He groaned and put his hands on his knees, then sunk to the floor.
Jonny could hardly stand when he woke up. He ignored the patches of grey hair on the floor as he got to his feet. He felt so frail. His arms and legs looked like sticks, but his belly had grown hard and fat, like he’d swallowed a bowling ball.
He made for the cellar door in the kitchen. Down the cellar stairs. Across the hard-packed dirt floor. He hacked up something hard and wet and wiped the back of his hand on his trousers without looking.
“Need to get that heat going, don’t we girl?” He said to nobody.
Diffused white light radiated from the snow-covered cellar windows. The shadow of the backup generator loomed ahead. Jonny tried to turn it on, but nothing happened. The heavy ignition switch flipped up and down with a loud clunk. Even the battery-powered operating lights remained dark.
“No,” he begged the machine, turning the “ON” key again and again until his hand hurt. “No.” A rasping whisper. He slumped against the diesel tank and slapped it weakly. The steel wall boomed.
“Empty?” He hit it. Boom. “No, no, no, no. Can’t be empty. Lasts for months. Filled it last week. I… I filled it last week.” He smashed a feeble fist against it one last time. The dirt walls of the cellar drank the reverberations. A hiss built behind the tank, something low and quiet that quickly built into an angry crackle not unlike a campfire. Jonny stepped back, unsure what he’d done.
Something poked at his ankle, and then his calf and his knee and then both knees and he reached down and felt the hard shells of something crawling up his leg and Jonny screamed and slapped his legs and fell and got back up and ran ran ran ran up the stairs and threw the door shut behind him.
He collapsed beside the coffee table and slapped two more centipedes off his legs. One skittered off, but the other crawled straight back toward him. He slammed his foot down on it hard enough to hurt his shin. He checked his slipper and found nothing. No marks on the floor either.
Jonny felt hot, sickly. He palmed oily sweat off his forehead. His skin burned. He went to the kitchen for a glass of water.
He found the sink full of ice and the tap frosted over. He broke the icicle off the tap, sank into one of the kitchen chairs and sucked on the ice. He froze. A row of paw prints crossed through the frost on the kitchen floor.
“Moxy?” He croaked. He tried again. “Moxy?” He sucked in another breath that caught in his throat and choked him. He heaved. His chest rattled. He dry-coughed twice in succession and finally closed his eyes and hacked up something heavy. He drank the air in through teary eyes and stood on shaky knees.
“Moxy?” He called. “Hey girl, it’s me.” The tracks led through the small gap in the pantry door. A thin film of frost covered every print. “I missed you Moxy. Jonny and Moxy Stenehjem against the world, huh girl? Isn’t that right?” He dropped to his knees and crawled. His hands trembled. He grasped the doorframe.
Frost cracked and fractured and fell in dusty waves as the door moved. Moxy lay on her back, curled to one side with her paws in the air. Her blue tongue hung slack outside her mouth, flecked with white. Shallow breaths moved her still chest.
“Oh, ohhh, ohh God,” he said. “Oh, Moxy, girl, oh baby, are… are you okay girl?” Clumps of hair fell away from her body as he pulled her in for a hug. He fell back on his bottom and cradled her.
“Jonny’s here darling,” he said. Tears chilled on his face. Her breathing grew stronger. “I’ll hold you close and you’ll be right as rain, for true. Just like them movies, I’ll make you warm and we’ll start the truck and I’ll be damned if we don’t fight our way out of this, isn’t that right girl?” Her breathing grew rapid, frantic. Her chest pushed against his, but he held on tight.
“Moxy?” He ran his hand over her face and sloughed off dead skin from her snout to her eye socket. He felt the cartilage of her ear snap under his palm. Something shiny and black squirmed in her eye socket. “Moxy?” Her chest expanded one last time and split open. Centipedes poured from the hole in every direction, crawling over Jonny’s arms and chest and up his neck. He screamed before they covered his mouth and then he was clawing at his face and eyes and screaming into the alien dark of his home.
The things prodded inside his nostrils and scrabbled for purchase in his ears. He kicked wildly to get out from underneath Moxy’s corpse. His hands slipped in the frost on the floor. A centipede bit the corner of his eye. He screamed and slammed his face against the floor, crushing it. His heel caught Moxy’s body in the spine and ripped it in two. The skittering horde filled the pantry.
Jonny got to his feet and made it to the kitchen door before cramps seized his stomach. He bent in half and vomited a writhing red and black mass over the floor and his feet. He sprinted to the door through a haze of tears and then he was gone into the screaming white.
Snow floated through the open door and began to drift against the wall.