Immediately upon entering Baba Rudenko took Yuri’s injured hand and cradled it within her own. “Oh, my poor child,” she said, shaking her head at the splinted finger. “Does it hurt much?”
“A little,” he said. Vovk entered through the back door and ran into the kitchen. Boba lay under the table hoping he was hidden, but Vovk found him, and sniffed him intimately.
Dyid Rudenko came in next, handing Yuri a bottle of Black Velvet. “I brought my own,” he said, “—just until you get back on your feet. You’re probably short on cash after the emergency room visit.”
“Thank you, Father,” Yuri said, cringing inwardly. After the rest of the family greetings were complete Baba Rudenko and Anna went to the stove to finish the cooking, while Yuri placed the bottle on the kitchen table with some shot glasses.
Dyid stopped him. “I thought we’d have a drink by ourselves in the living room first…”
Yuri sighed. It was just as well to get the lecture over with. “Yes, Father.”
They sat beside each other on the couch. Yuri poured out two shots for them. Dyid lifted his glass. “To your health, Yuri.”
Yuri raised his own glass, holding it between thumb and middle finger, his index finger pointing uselessly straight ahead, sort of like a lady at a tea party.
“Does your finger hurt?”
“The doctor said it was a clean break.”
“Hm. How did you do it?”
“I had an accident with a mousetrap.”
“Ah…Were you drinking?”
Yuri poured another two shots. “Well we’re drinking now and I’ll be sure to stay away from mousetraps.”
Dyid furrowed his brow with sad concern. “Anna said you lost your new job…”
“It wasn’t for me.”
“And are you looking for a new one?”
Dyid took out an unfiltered Camel from his pack and lit it. After a quiet drag he said, “Yuri, are you getting drunk too much?”
“No, Father. No more or less than I ever have.”
“We all enjoy the drink—some more than others. But when you do it too much it no longer is pleasant, and it stops making you happy.”
“It wasn’t drink that made me lose my job…” Well before his parents arrived Yuri had decided it would be impossible to tell his father the truth about what was really going on. Dyid Rudenko was a simple and reasonable man, and Yuri’s tale of the resurrected Pankrat Kravchuk’s invasion of his home was bound to be not well-received. He also swore Anna to secrecy about the matter. “I am just having bad luck now.”
“Do you need money?”
Yuri said adamantly, “No thank you, Father…Now we should go back to the kitchen and eat something, it’s not good to drink on an empty stomach.”
Once they were back with the rest of the family they stopped discussing these difficult topics. Yuri more or less dropped out of the general conversation, letting the children entertain their grandparents.
Eventually he had to go to the bathroom. On the way he passed the boys’ room and noticed Vovk in the room by himself. This was strange in itself, because he was an outgoing dog who relished being with his people. But his behavior was even more peculiar. An external force seemed to be leading him by his nose to various parts of the room—the leg of Taras’s bed, Max’s bookshelf, the stack of board games. At each point he sniffed deeply, exactly once. Then the force seemed to release him and he departed the room, trotting past Yuri with a troubled look on his face.
Now Yuri was very curious indeed and followed the dog to the living room. His first stop was the couch, where Snowman was lounging. Vovk raised his snout to him, causing the cat to hiss. Vovk pulled back, but not before getting in a good sniff. His next stop was behind Yuri’s recliner, where he rubbed his black nose to the ground in the very place the trap had been. Here he took two sniffs.
In a sudden burst of intuition Yuri understood all: Vovk could smell Pankrat, knew him to be a threat to the family, and was now hunting him! “Good dog, Vovk!”
Using his good hand Yuri grabbed the dog by the collar and took him back to the kitchen. Ignoring the others in the room he opened the cupboard and brought down the cereal box, putting the mangled corner right up to Vovk’s nose. The dog sniffed with great interest (but then could not resist darting out his tongue to lick at the exposed cereal). Yuri removed the carton of cigarettes from the cupboard and similarly gave it to Vovk for inspection.
The rest of the family went silent. Dyid said, “What is with you?”
Yuri didn’t answer. Vovk traced along the baseboards to the kitchen door, keeping his snout low to the ground. Yuri opened the door for him. Vovk advanced to the steps leading to the cellar. The tentativeness of his questing nose seemed to vanish, and he darted down the cellar stairs with Yuri close behind.
Pankrat was scrounging about beneath the workbench in the cellar. A ten-penny nail had fallen to the cement floor and been forgotten. He had eyed it on prior inspections of the area, but he was always too small to budge it. He liked to imagine himself carrying it like a pike into battle against Yuri. Maybe now he was big enough? It was worth a try. He straddled the head of the nail, crouched, and locked his fingers beneath the shaft. With a sharp intake of breath he heaved his thighs upward.
Success! He was able to stand upright holding one end of the nail off the ground.
Suddenly he heard a commotion at the top of the stairs, followed by the padded stomping of an animal lunging down the wooden steps into the cellar. Yuri’s voice called out:
“Find him, Vovk!”
On hearing the name ‘Vovk’ Pankrat felt real terror, knowing the dog to be the only genuine non-fool among Yuri’s people. He dropped the nail with a tiny clang and assessed his defensive posture: It was desperate. A dog’s snout could easily reach into any of the areas beneath the workbench.
The nearest hiding spot was among some stacked wooden boards by the wall, but to get there he’d have to run across the floor completely exposed. He bolted. Vovk, sniffing along the floor in the other half of the cellar, lifted his head and looked right into Pankrat’s eyes. The dog froze for an instant, stunned by what he beheld, but then barked and broke into a hunting run.
Pankrat reached the stack of boards and dove face first into a gap just as Vovk’s snout struck the pile of wood. He punched the pile again with his nose, clattering the boards, trying to extricate Pankrat.
“Is he there, Vovk?!” Yuri shouted as he caught up with the dog.
Vovk’s blows knocked Pankrat back into a narrow space between the boards and the jagged masonry of the foundation wall. Yuri picked up the topmost board and threw it aside. Pankrat knew his shelter would not last. While the dog was distracted he ran along the wall until he reached a precipice: the edge of a yard-square hole cut into the cellar floor for sewer access. He looked back at Yuri and the dog.
Yuri stopped tossing boards and turned to face him at the same moment. His eyes widened in amazement.
Pankrat shouted, “The Devil take you!” and leapt from the precipice.
“In there, Vovk!”
Pankrat’s fall was cushioned by a layer of dried muck on the floor of the shallow hole. He pushed up off the ground and spat out mildewy dust from his teeth. In the center of the hole was a drain covered by a metal claw, and he ran for this. Yuri’s shadow loomed over him. Pankrat managed to slip his body through a gap in the claw just before Yuri reached him.
“You’re dead now!”
Pankrat fell into the drain. He struck cold metal and rolled, coming to rest inside a sloping pipe. He hopped from foot to foot, trying not to touch the freezing metal. Up the pipe he could see the light coming from the cellar and Yuri’s fingers frantically working the drain cap. Vovk barked, the pipe scooping up the sound and echoing it around Pankrat, deafening him. Yuri succeeded in popping off the drain cap, and then his hand plunged down into the pipe.
Pankrat slid further down the pipe to escape his grasping hand. He was trapped. If he went back up the pipe Yuri and Vovk would surely shred him. Down the pipe was an impenetrable blackness from which cold air wafted.
He heard Yuri say: “I know just the thing.”
Pankrat shivered, unable to commit himself to the cold unknown down the slope. Vovk sniffed at the entrance, creating a whistling sound within the pipe. Yuri said, “Move aside, Vovk!”
A metallic clunk at the top of the pipe was followed by a glob glob glob, as a stream of foul-smelling liquid washed across Pankrat’s legs: It was turpentine. He darted his feet to either side of the stream to avoid being swept away. Then he heard a pshhht—a match being struck. He did not wait. He dropped to his butt and let the stream carry him down the pipe. Looking back he saw a wall of flame chasing him and just beginning to singe his back when he reached an outlet.
He tumbled out into open space. The rivulet of flaming turpentine followed him and flared briefly—showing him to be in a sewer pipe—before sputtering out as he landed in icy, fetid water. Yuri made triumphal whoops and Vovk barked. A woman shouted, “Fire! Fire!”, but it was far away.
The current knocked him off his feet and swept him along in the blackness. The water stabbed his body with many little pinpricks of icy cold. Now and then he would strike or be struck by unknown masses of varying sizes and consistencies. The thought that this was the end flashed into his mind. Why did he come back to life just to die in a sewer by drowning, by freezing, or by an assault of random effluvia?
But then, ahead in the sewer tunnel there was the faintest of lights, which grew brighter as he approached. He could not tell the source of the light until he was already upon it: a dimly lit hole, most likely the end of a pipe like the one he had just fallen out of. He tried to swim back to it but the current was too strong, pushing him away from the light.
After a longer stretch of dismal floating in the blackness Pankrat spotted another light ahead. This time he was ready. Well before he reached the light he flailed and kicked, exiting the river of sewage right at the moment it passed beneath the light. His body struck a mass of frozen muck adhering to the side of the sewer and he clung to it. Trying not to imagine the composition of this muck he climbed atop it to reach the light.
He was at the base of another pipe. The light at the other end was almost blinding to behold. The slope was not so bad and after some backsliding he ascended within the pipe. As he approached the other end he came upon a piece of yarn that he used to rappel the final distance. He reached a drain cap and slipping through it he emerged from the pipe.
He was in a square cutout of a cellar floor, just like the one he had jumped into back at Yuri’s house. The yarn he had climbed was attached to a mop that rested in the cutout. He climbed onto the dried mop head, then up the mop handle to the cellar floor proper.
Several bare lightbulbs lit the cellar and compared to the sewer the air here was balmy. Clotheslines were strung from the exposed ceiling joists and upon these hung various shabby housedresses, towels, socks and women’s underwear of a conservative variety. By the washing machine there was a laundry basket half-filled with folded towels, which looked inviting to Pankrat. He climbed into the basket and burrowed himself between two towels, leaving just his nose sticking out. His shivering finally subsided. Despite the coarseness of the worn towel fabric he found this to be the coziest place he had ever been on earth, in his new life or in his last.
It had been a close call back in Yuri’s cellar. But here he was, still alive—for some unfathomable reason. He suddenly felt very tired. As his eyes began to droop he heard a firetruck go by with sirens blaring. He knew they were going to the dumb-ass Yuri’s house, and he hoped they were too late.
[This ends the free preview. If you have enjoyed the book so far please consider buying a copy on Amazon. Thanks for reading!]