Exclusive Excerpt from NOX
by Adrienne Wilder
The neighbor’s dog wouldn’t stop barking.
Outside the kitchen window, Mr. Oak’s Border Collie was nothing more than a flash of black and white as he circled the barn at the edge of the pasture.
Luca rinsed the glass under the flow of water and set it in the drying rack beside the sink with the rest of the dinner dishes.
A line of dark clouds stained the horizon, washing out the sunset. Wind tossed up a cloud of dirt to dance around the dog.
He continued to bark.
Luca pressed his fingers to his temple. With every burst of sound, a dull throb beat behind his eyes.
How many times had Luca hauled the animal back to his owner’s house a half-mile down the road this week? At least five, and it was only Wednesday.
“Damn it, Buster, I’m not in the mood for this.” Luca took the length of rope off the peg near the door. His muscles protested the climb down the small flight of steps from the back porch, and the constant fatigue plaguing him gnawed deeper.
He headed down the hill, thick blades of fescue grabbing at his legs left green streaks across his jeans. Despite the warm temperatures, the air kissed his skin with a chill.
The dog crouched, moving right to left a few yards outside the barn.
The Border Collie looked up, tongue flopping out the side of his mouth.
Luca unrolled the rope. “Here, let’s get you home.” He reached for the dog’s collar. Buster snapped his jaws, and Luca jerked his hand back. “Whoa, what the hell’s gotten into you?” Normally the dog was more than willing to go for a car ride. Half the time, Luca didn’t need the leash.
Buster lowered to his belly, exhaling in rapid breaths. He whined while he stared into shadows cast by the wooden slat walls. Luca stepped closer to the barn.
A deep growl rumbled in Buster’s chest.
Whatever he heard was either out of Luca’s range of hearing or drowned out by the thump of his heart. He paused at the threshold until his eyes adjusted to the lack of light.
His parents had gotten rid of the horses after his brother Koda was killed. Luca had resented them for a while. When recovering from his second battle with leukemia, watching the horses from his bedroom window had been his escape. Faced with final go-round, he was thankful he wouldn’t have to worry about them when he went into hospice.
Buster stepped inside. Hackles raised over the dog’s shoulders, running in a line down his back.
Luca picked up a shovel hanging from a nail just at the entrance. If whatever spooked the dog was bigger than a raccoon, Luca doubted it would do much good. At least there weren’t bears in this part of the country. At least he’d never seen one. He hoped this was not the day he did.
Luca inched his way into the barn.
He bumped open the first stall door with his elbow. Mounds of rotting hay edged the walls where it hadn’t caught in the craters dug by hooves pawing at the ground.
The door on the second stall was reluctant to open thanks to the rust binding the hinges. Sticky strands of spider webs caught Luca’s fingers. He grimaced and scrubbed them off on his shirt. Again, nothing but shadows.
He inched past two more stalls where night filled the space between the dividers. More straw and dirt, and the heady scent of animals long gone.
The last door belonged to the storage area where they’d kept tack and feed.
With each hesitant shuffle forward, Luca’s tennis shoes left ruts in the dirt. He reached the last enclosure. Sweat burned his eyes. He licked his dry lips. Buster’s quick breaths were the only sound in the barn aside from Luca’s pulse racing in his ears.