Jim Brogan was an asshole. He was also a drunk.
In the space of five years, he’d lost his job, his wife and kids, his house, and his truck—in that order, though he mourned his truck more than his kids. Losses like that would’ve cut anyone else some sympathy, but Brogan had been an asshole before all that happened. Now, he was a drunken asshole who whined.
It made receiving this call at the end of his shift that much more unpleasant for Sheriff Mike Hardy.
If Sheriff Hardy was honest with himself—and he always tried to be—then he could admit that his second favorite dream involving Jim Brogan was some poor trucker, dozing at the wheel of his semi, would one day hit Brogan as he weaved his way along the highway between wherever he came from and wherever he was going to. The lives of many of the people in Sheriff Hardy’s town would be infinitely improved—Mike’s included. But until that distant, dreamed-of day, Mike Hardy would do his job, and right now his job consisted of finding Jim Brogan and stopping him from whatever drunken act of selfish asshole-ry he was planning on dumping on Loreen and the kids. He was grateful to the barman at the Ramblin’ Man roadhouse for the head’s up, but it was still an unpleasant way to end his working day.
Finding Brogan was easy: he was on Highway 42, exactly as Mike figured he’d be.
It was Brogan’s usual route from the Ramblin’ Man to Loreen’s mother’s place—a near- straight shot that unfortunately Brogan never forgot no matter how much he’d drunk.
The farms on either side of Highway 42 were corporate, which meant no windbreaks and nothing to block the Sheriff’s view of the road. It was easy enough to spot Brogan. The asshole looked to be his usual self—skinny, dirty, and very underdressed for the cool September evening. He was walking because a year back Brogan had tried leaving the Midnight Casino out on the Res after having had a few too many. He’d driven out of the parking lot and gone straight into the ditch on the other side of the main road, and there his car had stayed until the casino had it towed as scrap. Brogan had been car-less ever since. A small sign that sometimes God did listen to the puny mortals.
It didn’t stop the man from drinking, though, Mike thought with a resigned sigh.
Mike could see the breeze trying to lift Brogan’s limp hair. He wondered if the man even felt the cold anymore. He wondered if Brogan would feel it when it got ten degrees colder, twenty degrees—when it dropped to freezing.
God forgive him, but that was Mike’s favorite dream involving Jim Brogan. That he’d peacefully freeze to death in the ditch some winter day, sparing the semi-truck driver the guilt of having killed a man.
Neither of those things was going to happen tonight, however. Highway 42 was seldom used by anyone except locals, and it was barely cold enough to frost Mike’s breath.
Mike pulled his SUV over to the side and put on his flashers before getting out. Just because he didn’t think a half-asleep trucker was going to come up this road didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
In front of him, Jim Brogan spun crookedly to look at the lights. His left foot tangled in his right leg, and he nearly went over. Nearly, but not quite.
“Brogan,” Mike said. “Where you going at this time of night?”
“Nowhere. I wazzn’t doin’ nothin’.” Brogan’s words were slurred, but the defensive whine was plenty evident.
Movement caught in the corner of his eye made Mike turn his head to look over the bordering farm. The crops were mostly in, only a few far-off rows still to be collected, so the fields were dark. There were no cows nibbling on the remains and fertilizing the field, and there were no trees or shrubs because corporate farming didn’t allow for those kinds of things. Mike couldn’t tell what had pulled his attention away from the man in front of him. Nothing was moving now.
He turned back to Brogan. “You weren’t planning on going to see Loreen, were you, Brogan? Because you know that’s not allowed.”
Brogan smiled and showed off teeth that were chipped and yellow. “I wazzn’t. No sir. Jus’ goin’ home.”
Again, Mike could have sworn something moved at the side of the road. Maybe there was a coyote or a gopher among the weeds. He’d have to look for a coyote, but maybe tomorrow when there was light enough to see. He made a note of it in his field-book even as he continued questioning Brogan.
“So what are you doing on this road, Brogan?” Mike asked. “And don’t tell me ‘going home’; your home is two miles in the other direction.”
“I was goin’ home,” Brogan said. “Jus’ got turned ‘round some.” Brogan raised a shaky hand to his stomach, scratching at its distended surface.
“I heard you were saying something different at the roadhouse,” Mike said.
“Izzat what Donny said?” demanded Brogan. He tried to put his hands on his hips, but his right hand missed.
“Don’s got nothing to do with this, Brogan,” Mike said with a shake of his head. Donny, the Ramblin’ Man’s owner and barman, was also the guy who’d dated Loreen in high school before she’d gotten involved with Brogan. Brogan had never forgiven Donny for it. “Everybody knows Loreen’s got a restraining order against you. You go into a local bar and start spouting off about how you’re going to convince her to come back—” Again, Mike shook his head. “Well, they’re not idiots.”
“I never said nothin’ about annya’ that,” Brogan protest with flung out arms. “I’m just walkin’… walkin’ home, an’ anyone who said diff’rent is a liar. Lyin’ liars who lie,” he mumbled.
Brogan’s hand was pressed against his stomach as if it hurt. Probably his cirrhosis acting up, Mike thought. Cirrhosis at age 32 was another thing Brogan liked to whine about, but now it was in Mike’s mind he’d have to take the possibility into account. If Brogan did suffer a medical emergency, Mike was determined that no one would be able to say he’d made it worse. So he took another look at the man: his color was bad—pale, almost yellow, with circles under his eyes so dark it was like looking into the void. His breathing was off and smelly, too. Maybe from liver problems. Maybe from not having brushed his teeth since Loreen moved out five years ago.
“Let me take you home,” the Sheriff offered. “You can sleep it off.”
“Loreen lied,” Brogan declared into the deepening twilight. “I never laid a finger on ‘er. Or the kids. Never did.”
Whatever concern had been building in Mike evaporated at those words. He’d responded to Loreen’s 911 calls too many times to doubt that Loreen absolutely had not lied when she stood up in court to get her restraining order during the divorce. He decided he didn’t care when Brogan stomach-scratching became violent enough to draw blood, or when Brogan gave a little mewl of pain. Especially when Brogan hadn’t finished with his threats.
“I’m gonna get ‘er back, yessir. She’s m’wife an’ she belongs with me.” Brogan mumbled. He followed that up with a few other, similar idiocies and then turned to continue up the road to where his ex-wife lived.
Mike had had enough. He stepped forward and grabbed Brogan’s arm. “That’s as far as you go, Brogan,” he said.
“Just gonna talk to ‘er.” Brogan’s breath was worse. Like the water in the ditch at the side of the road, it smelled of dead and rotting things.
Mike turned his face away, and nudged Brogan toward his vehicle. “Not tonight you’re not.”
“But I love ‘er. I’ve always loved ‘er,” Brogan said. “It’s not my fault she got hurt.”
Mike was so busy resisting the impulse to throw the whining asshole to the ground that he took two steps before he realized Brogan had stopped. A moment later Brogan collapsed to the pavement, wheezing and writhing.
Brogan curled up around his gut, which, now Mike was paying attention, seemed to have doubled in size. His grimy T-shirt couldn’t fit around it anymore and was riding the top of it. Brogan’s pale flesh shone in the dim light. “H-hurts. Holy fuck, it hurts.”
It was either an alien getting ready to burst out of Brogan’s stomach, or the man truly was having some kind of cirrhosis attack.
Mike reached for his radio, meaning to call dispatch, when Brogan made a broken, gurgling noise. Blood poured from his mouth and nose, his eyes and ears. He jerked, once, twice, rapping his head on the pavement with loud thumps. Mike abandoned the radio and grabbed his jacket from the vehicle. He folded it hastily, so he could use it as a cushion, but as he reached Brogan’s side there was a ‘pop’ and blood was suddenly everywhere.
Mike blinked, needing a moment to understand that Brogan’s stomach had exploded. All over him.
Mike looked down at Brogan just to be sure, and yup, the side of the man’s stomach had blown out. There were loops of intestines, and chunks of other organs, mixed in amongst the blood. What was left of Brogan’s stomach was flaccid, like an old balloon newly popped. The image made Mike’s own stomach rebel, and he had to turn away before he embarrassed himself. This was a crime scene, Goddamnit. Didn’t matter how much Brogan had drunk, or how bad his health—stomachs didn’t explode like that. Not outside of Hollywood.
Mike backed carefully out of the blast area, trying not to smudge the spatter pattern. The town didn’t have a forensics department, just a local MD who acted as coroner on an “as-needed” basis. This was probably beyond her skills—not that he’d ever tell Lizzie that. He liked to be on that woman’s good side as much as possible. He was already planning the rest of his evening when he turned away, back to his truck to get out the emergency road kit.
It was dark—dark enough to hide thin, green tendrils growing bloated and fat at the side of the road; and dark enough to hide them as they stretched, narrowed, and grew.