This is the prologue for Mimi Johnson’s novel, Gathering String, which you can buy for $5.99 from the Kindle Store (if you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the Kindle app for an iPad, other tablet or your computer).
Already bitter, the temperature was still dropping when Wendell Carlson forced himself out of the blue recliner in his cozy living room. He pulled on the thickest coat he owned, a hunting jacket, ragged and bloodstained. Still pulling up the stubborn zipper, he stepped out the front door and into the frigid night. The lights from Main Street, just over the hill, weren’t enough to dull the stars’ bright pinpoints in the clear sky. It was perfectly still, the kind of winter night when every wisp of warmth flies right out into the heavens.
Just the thought of squeezing his backside behind the steering wheel and onto the cold, torn seat of his wife’s old Chevy was almost enough to send Wendell back into the house. But if her car didn’t start in the morning, she’d make him even more miserable. The Wal-Mart wouldn’t cut her any slack if she was late for work. His pickup with its block heater would have a better chance of starting after sitting out in the cold. That was the trouble with a one-car garage; the wrong vehicle was always inside.
Down the walk, his boots shattered the crisp snow crystals with a distinct crunch that carried in the stillness. On the car’s frosty back window, the blinking Christmas lights from the Tillmans’ across the way made a weird, rhythmic reflection. He’d just opened the driver’s door when he heard someone yelling. Just under the corner streetlight he saw the kid running, slipping and trying to keep his feet. He wasn’t wearing a coat.
Wendell let the door go. It didn’t latch tight, but he went on into the street, calling, “Hey! Hey, what’s going on?”
The boy stopped, pointing back the way he’d come, his yells louder, but a jumble of sound Wendell couldn’t make out. There was something in the cries, a yelping really, that made Wendell start to trot toward him, and then run. “They’re in there! They’re in there!” The words were a keen, over and over, and Wendell’s stomach rolled over. What the hell had come running out of the dark?
The boy slid the last few feet to him and Wendell tried to grasp his arms, his fingers sliding across wet, sticky flesh. He looked down to see the deep scratches that dripped little red stars onto the snow.
“Andy?” He’d known the Brubaker kid for years, but the boy’s face was so contorted Wendell hardly recognized him, Andy’s eyes rolling with panic. Wendell shook him, turning his head from the kid’s reek. “You drunk?” Then Wendell realized the smell was gasoline.
Over and over, “They’re in there! Help! They’re in there!” The gasping kid pulled Wendell just a little further, toward the crest of the hill, pointing down Main Street. About a half block down, Wendell thought he saw some movement in the Corner Grocery Store, and for a second, wondered if the kid had seen burglars. But as he stared, he realized that the interior of the building was beginning to glow, and the movement danced and jumped under a thick, smoky shroud.
“Good, sweet Christ!” Wendell pulled the boy up close. “Andy, who? Who’s in there?”
“Bobby and Jeff!” It was a shriek. Wendell let go and Andy went down, rolling and wailing incoherently on the snow-packed street.
He just left the writhing boy. He didn’t have his cell phone. He started running back toward his house, moaning, “Shit, oh shit!” A deep, sinister rumble came from down the hill, and slipping, Wendell just caught his balance as he swung a look back to see the building shudder as the plate glass front window blew out onto the street. He moved onto the snow-covered grass for better traction, running faster, his breath coming hard. The cold pressed like needles into his face, and tears began to form and freeze in his eyes.