First Reads
7:50 am
Wed August 15, 2012

Exclusive First Read: Black-Comic Horror In 'Breed'

Originally published on Fri June 14, 2013 1:54 pm

  • Listen To This Excerpt From 'Breed'

The longing for children is fertile literary ground; from it, authors have brought forth everything from satire to tragedy. In his new novel, Breed, Chase Novak goes for black-comic body horror, liberally splashed with blood. Alex and Leslie Twisden are a rich couple desperate to fill their Upper East Side townhouse with children. After years of failed fertility treatments, they learn from Alex's friend Jim about a mysterious, miracle-working doctor. Breed has drawn comparisons to Rosemary's Baby, but in this over-the-top tale, it's not the baby who's the monster. In this exclusive selection from the novel — which will be published Sept. 4 — Alex and Leslie visit the reclusive Dr. Kis at his grimy Ljubljana office.


PARENTS' ADVISORY: This excerpt contains sexual content and strong language that some readers may find offensive.


There are some doctors who inspire confidence, and others who don't. And then there are doctors like Kis, who inspire dread. We expect doctors to be clean, and he is not clean. Though his hands are scrubbed and he smells of antibacterial soap, his uncleanliness comes from something far below the skin. His eyes are distant; his expression one of exasperation and superiority; his touch is impersonal and slightly harsh.

After a very routine exam — stethoscope, blood pressure cuff — the doctor asks Alex and Leslie, in Slovene, when they last had sex, which Reggie translates with a kind of creepy relish.

"We had sexual relations nine days ago," Alex says with as much dignity as he can muster.

"And how was it?" Reggie asks, but quickly adds, "Kidding, I'm just kidding. We actually prefer a longer abstinence period, but nine nights will have to do."

Kis goes on to explain what the procedure involves. His voice contains no enthusiasm, or warmth, or even simple humanity. With Reggie translating, he speaks rapidly, like the voice at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial on TV listing in eight seconds the hundred possible catastrophic side effects of the new medicine. Kis looks off into the middle distance as he rattles along, and Reggie picks at his fingernails as he does his best to keep up with the doctor's rapid-fire delivery.

"We are going to increase the motility of your sperm and the receptivity of your eggs. We are turning a quiet glade in the forest into a teeming spot in the jungle. Life, life, everywhere life, wanting, taking, growing. We are going to turn you on. Up high. Like teenager and creature of the wild. Nothing will hold you back. Life! Life!"

Alex looks at Leslie, and the two of them start to laugh. The doctor is clearly insane, and the futility of their mission, plus the expense, and the jet lag, and the accumulation of three years of painful disappointments, leaves them with nothing but giddiness.

But the next thing Alex knows he is shirtless with the others looking on, and, without a word of warning or a moment's hesitation, Dr. Kis pierces the back of his right arm with a very large old-fashioned needle, and the silliness is gone, barely remembered. It is amazingly painful; the sensation goes to the marrow of Alex's bones, and while he is absorbing the pain, Kis takes out another syringe, equally large, and injects Alex in the neck, frighteningly near the jugular. Alex's heart races; he hears his own cry like the yowl of a fox in a trap. It crosses his mind that he is being murdered.

When the pain subsides, he says, "This is not very much fun," trying to be brave.

"Just be happy it isn't two years ago, when we used to give the injection directly into the willy," Reggie says.

Before Alex can react to that, Dr. Kis claps his hand over Alex's left ear, pushing his head down to administer the final and most excruciating injection — behind the ear. As he pulls the needle out, Kis steps back, looking as if he has just vanquished Alex in a fencing match.

"Now you are good to go," the doctor says in English. His words, heavily accented, buzz like flies.

Next it is Leslie's turn, and the ordeal that awaits her is now no mystery, since she has just witnessed Alex's agony. As he buttons his shirt, she shakes her head and says, "I'm sorry, but there's no way I'm putting myself through that. I just can't."

"Then it's not going to work," Alex says. He feels a rush of heat moving through his body, disconcerting, almost violent, but he doesn't react, not wanting to give Leslie anything more about which to be apprehensive.

"I'm sorry, sweetie, I really am. But." Leslie gestures helplessly.

Dr. Kis, again in English — there are phrases he knows for situations that often reoccur — "No refunds possible."

"Screw you with your refunds," Alex says, whirling on Kis, pointing his finger in the doctor's face. Turning to Leslie, he says, after taking a deep breath to calm himself, "It hurts for maybe two seconds."

"Alex, you were screaming."

"But am I screaming now? That's what counts."

"Really? Is that what counts? Nobody screams forever."

"Les..."

"I can't go through that kind of pain." Leslie makes a move toward the door, and Reggie steps directly in front of her, blocking her path.

"Go into the next room if you want this to work," Reggie says to Alex.

"Go! Go!" Kis says, waving his left hand while his right, hanging by his side, holds a fresh syringe.

"Get out of my way!" Leslie shouts at Reggie.

"Leslie, please," Alex says. "We've come so far. You're making a scene."

"Just go," Reggie says. "Quickly. Having you here is further upsetting her."

"Shut the fuck up, you idiot bastard," Leslie says. She attempts to push him aside, but despite his scrawniness and the utter lack of seriousness in his demeanor, he is unbudgable.

"All right, Leslie," Alex says, moving toward her, "can we just get this done?"

"I want to leave," she says, turning toward him, her eyes full of injury. "You're supposed to help me, you're supposed to be on my side, not theirs."

He places his hands on her shoulders and carefully draws her close to him. "It's going to be okay," he whispers into her hair.

She shakes her head no, at first sadly, and then with increasing emphasis, and finally with a vigor that is close to hysteria.

"Next room," Kis says.

Reggie leads Leslie back to the examination table and indicates with a movement of his chin by which door Alex ought to exit. He does as he is asked and finds himself in another examination room, this one, by the looks of it, not often used.

The examination table is bare, and the several tears in the upholstery ooze yellowish stuffing. The shelves are empty and the one poster on the wall seems to have been taken from an acupuncturist's office; it shows a human torso pierced on all sides by needles, and the sight of it makes Alex think of Saint Sebastian pierced by — what? — fifty arrows, but unkilled.

He hears Leslie's weak protests, and he goes to the door, driven by instinct. Yet before his hand can touch the doorknob he hears a strange ticking noise and when he turns toward it he sees Zeus walking slowly across the linoleum floor, a shower curtain of saliva hanging from his half-open mouth.

"No," Alex says in his most commanding voice. He hears scuffling sounds in the next room. "Zeus," he says, remembering. "Sit down."

Instead, the dog shoves his snout into Alex's groin. Alex presses himself against the wall, desperate to find even an inch of space away from the dog and his hot meaty breath.

"No," Leslie cries from the next room, wailing without hope.

And at the same moment, the dog rises on his back legs and wraps his front paws around Alex's right leg, about thigh high, and begins to thrust. Zeus humps away, thrusting, thrusting, stench rolling from his mouth and nostrils in scalding waves, his lurid red, glistening penis brushing against Alex's trousers, thoroughly wetting them.

When they finally get back to their hotel, the rain has stopped, though in its place are powerful wet winds that blow punishingly through the old city. Even if Leslie and Alex wanted to speak, the noise of the wind would drown them out, and it is just as well because they are unable to even look at each other just now.

Alex carries a white paper bag in which are two vials of bright pink liquid. Kis had given his final instructions in Slovene, and Reggie smirkingly translated. "Drink these when you get home and let nature takes its course."

The hotel has a cozy little business center where guests have the use of a brand-new computer, and while she is still able to Leslie ducks in to check her e-mail, primarily to see if there is anything from her assistant. There is nothing, and, after a moment's dismay, Leslie realizes it is too early back home for anything to have happened. There is one e-mail from Cynthia. Your house is soooo lovely. While she is at the computer and still thinking about it, Leslie tries to find out exactly what kind of fish the goby is.

Moments later she is back in their suite. Exhausted from the ordeal of the overnight flight followed by the far greater ordeal of their visit with Kis, they fall into their faux-king-size bed — really two standard mattresses with a large sheet pulled tautly over them — and are asleep almost immediately.

They awaken in each other's arms in a room that would have been dark as coal had not one of them forgotten to turn off the bathroom light.

"Where are we?" Leslie whispers.

"Don't ask," Alex says.

"Okay," she says. "Don't tell." She looks at her Cartier tank watch (third-anniversary dinner, Le Bernardin); they have been asleep less than two hours.

He leans over to kiss her but she recoils. He looks at her questioningly and she says, "Your breath."

"I wasn't going to say it," Alex answers, "but... yours too."

Despite everything, they are feeling urgently romantic. They have been given instructions by Kis to resume their sex life as soon as possible. Well, alone in a hotel bed in a strange city: it doesn't get more possible than that.

They roll out of bed and scamper into the bathroom to brush their teeth, rinse, gargle. Alex feels insanely young. Leslie's loins are scalding. They remember the vials Kis has given them, and Alex runs into the bedroom and retrieves the white paper sack, brings them in. They clink their vials together as if toasting each other with champagne and drink it down.

The taste is so strange that it cannot even be called repulsive — it reminds them of nothing they have ever tasted and so it is attached to no taboo taste. It's not salty; it's not bitter, or rotten. There are no words to describe it — except to say they both hope never to have anything similar pass their lips again. They drop the empty glass vials into the tin wastepaper basket beneath the sink, and the sounds they make ring out like gunshots.

"My breath still tastes weird," Alex says. He exhales forcefully and Leslie sniffs the air.

"Ick, ick, ick," she says. "Yet? I don't mind it. I am in a state of not-mindingness." She breathes into her own palm, sniffs. And then she squats and urinates onto the bathroom floor.

In the morning, the desk clerk rings their room at eight o'clock. They survey the wreckage of the place and the wreckage of their bodies — torn sheets, overturned chairs and tables, bent curtain rods, scratches, bruises, bite marks.

Alex says, "Whatever happens next, or really whatever happens for the rest of my life, last night..."

"I know," says Leslie. "Me too. Me three. Me... ten billion..."

"My cock is numb."

"You're lucky. Every place you went in is throbbing."

"Every place?"

"Every place."

They shower, dress, pack, make an attempt to put the room in order, but it's hopeless. They leave the housekeepers a very handsome tip and call down to the front desk, asking for a taxi to the airport. Ljubljana is deserted and looks desolate and somehow temporary in the cardboard-colored rain. The Art Deco core of the city gives way to socialist-realist outskirts, which in turn give way to open fields alternating with thick clumps of woodland where the pine and spruce are so dark green they look nearly black. The airport is bereft of auto­mobile traffic. It seems astonishing and almost unreal that the airport in a capital city — even the capital of a country most people have never heard of — could be so quiet.

Takeoff from Ljubljana to Munich is delayed because of strong winds, and as their plane sits on the runway, Leslie watches as one of the little open-sided buses loops around the field, delivering passengers to an Aeroflot jet. Suddenly, a woman in her twenties, in a tight skirt and towering high heels, leaps off the bus and, after stumbling and falling to her knees, gets up and begins to run. Soon after, a man leaps off the bus and runs after her.

What is going on? Leslie cranes her neck to see — she has a vision of the woman lifted up off the runway by the force of one of the jet engines, sucked into the whirling turbine and devoured — but now the flight to Munich is set to begin and their plane turns sharply onto the runway.

The stewardess in her not-quite-turquoise blazer is nursing a cold. Across the aisle from them sit two elderly nuns; the thin sister comforts the large one, who is openly in tears, staring straight ahead and making no attempt to shield her face.

"What's wrong with them?" Leslie whispers.

"I don't know. Nuns have problems too. But you know what puzzles me even more? Since when do nuns fly first class?"

"By the way," Leslie says. "The goby eats its young."

They've been cleared for takeoff. The engines roar and the scenery races past. This is always the difficult moment on a plane for Leslie, and Alex takes her hand, pats it reassuringly. As they rise it looks like the thick forest is plummeting.

"I think I'm pregnant," Leslie whispers.

Pregnancy is as natural as anything on earth, but it also has a certain science fiction aspect to it: a seed is placed inside an almost invisible egg and then a near replica of the man or the woman begins to grow inside the woman's body. Breasts swell, hips enlarge, cheeks become rosy, moods swing. Pregnancy is not for the faint of heart.

Being pregnant may be one of the most feminine things a woman can do, but it sometimes creates characteristics that you'd otherwise find only in men, such as an increase in body hair. A pregnant woman can suddenly grow a line of hair on her swollen stomach, a kind of furry line of longitude dividing the globe of her belly. Sometimes the down on her upper lip will darken and thicken. Sometimes the peach fuzz on her chin will turn black and wiry. Sideburns emerge out of nowhere. Sometimes the breasts sprout dark hairs; sometimes the hairs spring up on the back, usually forming a little nest of dark fur more or less on the tailbone. Androgens, one of the hormones that accompany pregnancy, are the cause of this sudden furriness, and there is nothing to be done about it, and nothing to worry about either.

Except in Leslie's case, the hair growth is extreme, and particularly shocking since she was always so smooth and girlish. She was the kind of woman who needed to shave her legs and underarms only once a month; the hair on her head grew so slowly she had it cut once, maybe twice a year.

It is in the second month of the pregnancy when she realizes the changes taking place in her. One day, Alex wakes up around seven in the morning, just as Leslie is slipping back into bed. Her back is to him and he moves next to her to warm her up. He presses himself to her back and puts his arm around her. Her body shakes, and Alex realizes she is crying.

"What's going on?" he asks her.

She shakes her head, unable to speak.

He moves closer to her, as close as two bodies can be. "Hey," he says, "I'm here."

She hikes up her nightgown and takes his hand and moves it down and places it between her legs.

Alex tries not to show any reaction — no pulling back, no shudder, no matter how slight, nothing by which she might surmise how strange and unsettling this familiar private patch suddenly feels to him. But the difference is unmistakable; it feels as if her pubic hair has tripled and maybe even quadrupled in density, and what had once been a soft, wispy inverted pyramid is now a thick, coarse square. She holds on to his hand, as if to prevent him from drawing it back in revulsion, though revulsion is far from what he is experiencing. What he feels is perplexity and curiosity. How could this have happened? What does it mean?

Maintaining her control over his hand, Leslie slowly moves it up and down her private middle.

"Wow," Alex says, trying to sound impressed and not dismayed, "when did this happen?"

Leslie shakes her head, unable to speak.

"I think it's hot," Alex says.

But Leslie is having none of it. "I think it's disgusting," she says, scrambling out of bed. Alex wonders what time it is and lifts himself up on his elbows to get a look at the old GE digital alarm clock, a piece of junk from his college days in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he has not been able to part with. But the clock has somehow gotten itself turned around and he can't make out the numbers. He raises his wrist and holds it in front of him to read his Rolex and what he sees so startles and unnerves him he makes a strangled aacchhh sound, repelled by the sight of his arm.

When he went to sleep some seven hours earlier, the hair on his arm was sparse and pale brown. Now it has darkened by several shades, and indeed seems more like canine fur than human hair. He shakes his head, as if to dislodge the fog of fantasy and hallucination from his mind, and a wet ribbon of drool flies from his mouth.

Alex goes into the bathroom, where Leslie is sitting on the edge of the tub, crying into her hands. She looks up at him, her eyes barely visible in the predawn gloom.

Alex turns on the lights and thrusts his arm out. "It's happening to me too."

Just as she had guided his hand so he might feel what had happened to her, Alex takes Leslie's hand and rubs it up and down the sudden fur of his forearm. In her distraught state, she isn't as protective of his feelings as he was of hers. "Oh my God, what the hell is that?" she says, snatching back her hand as if from a fire.

"What is going on here?" Alex feels light-headed, nauseated; he thinks for a moment he might actually pass out.

"He did this to us," Leslie says, her voice wobbling.

Alex wants to reassure her, but he can find nothing true to say that would soothe her soul. He merely shakes his head.

"He ruined us," Leslie says as she begins to cry. "He killed us, he turned us into... oh God, Alex. Don't even look at me. It's not just my pussy, it's everywhere. I'm just grotesque."

"We're going to be okay, I promise you. And we're going to have a family."

"This is what you wanted." Leslie hears what she has just said, and she suddenly snaps out of the whirl of grief that momentarily possessed her. "Okay, I can't go to work like this," she says, taking Alex's elbow and leading him to the door.

"What are you doing?" he says, pulling away from her.

"I'm going to get rid of this," she says.

"But how?"

"I'm going to shave what can be shaved. And I need you to go to the Duane Reade and get some bleach, it's called Jolen, I think, and it's made for lightening hair on your face, and I want you to get me some Nair."

"But..."

She shoves his chest with startling vigor. "Go!" she says. "And hurry. I've got a meeting with some European agents this morning and I can't be late."

For Alex, some of this vigorous hair growth is a welcome reprieve from the gradual balding he was experiencing in middle age. He realizes that his suddenly having such a healthy head of hair, thick and luxuriant, cannot possibly be only good news, but still he is quite pleased to have regained (as opposed to Rogained) his hair.

In fact, the physical changes do not bother or frighten Alex nearly so much as the psychological changes he is going through — and these he keeps to himself. His moods range from rage to utter tranquillity, and on both ends of this continuum he experiences an intensity of feeling as never before. Before the visit to Dr. Kis, most, if not all, of his emotions were mixed. Even the blackest sorrow had somewhere within it dark blue shimmers of hope; even the greatest joys held within them consciousness of joy's inevitable ebbing. His emotions were like hot-air balloons, and each of them carried the ballast of memory and knowledge. But now the ballast is gone and everything he feels is total, and practically overwhelming. He is not ever merely hungry — he is ravenous. He is not annoyed — he is in a seething rage. He is not feeling romantic — he is overcome with lust.

Soon, Alex is shaving morning and evening and clipping his fingernails every day. If he neglects his toenails, the nail on the big toe will saw through his sock — even when he clips them, in a month he goes through fifteen pairs of socks, until he no longer bothers to buy them from Brooks Brothers, although it had always given him a sense of continuity to purchase men's hosiery from the same store, the same counter, and perhaps even from the same stooped salesman as his father and his father before him had purchased theirs. Now Alex is buying socks in bulk from a discount clothing shop on Third Avenue specializing in seconds and discontinued styles, where he shops to the accompaniment of unspeakably loud hip-hop pouring down from the store's gigantic speakers, music that seems to him neither hip nor conducive to hopping, and that, with its throbbing rhythm tracks and furious-sounding vocals, is murder on his sensitive ears.

But he keeps his problems to himself, keeps them not only from the world at large but, as much as he can, from Leslie as well. He has always been the steady one. He has always been the one who kept track of their finances and their social engagements. In every way, Alex is the marriage's designated driver.

There is not a strand of new hair that appears on Leslie's body that does not horrify her. Women look forward to the rich glow that pregnancy gives their hair, but not if it is growing up their bellies or on the backs of their hands. As the weeks pass, Leslie comes to look upon her body as a country at war, a nation that was losing province after province to the invading hordes of unwanted hair. Leslie's morning toilette had always been a crisp, efficient fifteen minutes — a burst of shower, a dash of eyeliner, a little swirl of blush, and a quick anointment of her pulse points with perfume. Now she needs an hour or two to ready herself to face the world, and when she finally emerges from the bathroom, swathed in concealing scarves, her eyes show the colors of the flag.

Alex decides he will broach the subject of hair with Jim Johnson, who, despite having entered the firm in such a dishonorable way, has been doing a good job at Bailey, Twisden, Kaufman, and Chang. It is two weeks after the issue of Leslie's sudden furriness was raised — it has taken this long for Alex to put aside his desire for social distance from the unbecoming and irritating Jim Johnson — and when Alex makes the long walk through his firm's glass-and-mahogany corridors to Johnson's glorified cubicle, in a wing of the firm's offices that Alex has barely visited before, he is informed by a woman named Betty Varrick, a legal assistant (and secretary) shared by five of the firm's junior attorneys, that Mrs. Johnson had a baby and Mr. Johnson has not been in the office since.

"And when was this?" Alex asks.

"Oh, it's been three weeks, Mr. Twisden."

"Three weeks? That's a bit excessive, isn't it? Do me a favor, please, and get him on the phone and transfer the call to my office."

Back in his office, with its sweeping views of Midtown and Central Park, its antique Persian carpet, seventeenth-century globes, and fourteen-by-eighteen Samuel Fulton oils of bulldogs — not great art, perhaps, but somehow comforting presences to Alex — he goes over some routine papers while beneath his Sheraton desk, his well-shod foot taps nervously as he waits to speak to Jim Johnson.

Suddenly, startlingly, his phone rings. One of his assistants tells him that Betty is on the line and he instructs him to put her through.

"There's no answer," Varrick says. "I left a message."

"And you tried his mobile?"

"Yes. I did."

"And?"

There's a brief, uncomfortable pause. "The number is no longer in use."

"No longer in use?"

"I'm sorry."

Alex cancels his morning appointments and takes a taxi to the Johnsons' apartment, on Broadway and Ninety-Second Street. It is a large, drab building, five or ten years old, soaring up thirty floors between a Verizon store and a Blockbuster Video. The lobby, presided over by a mournful-looking older doorman who seems to be wearing the uniform of a much larger man, still shows the evidence of the recently passed holidays — a large menorah with electric candles, each with a chunky flame-shaped bulb; a desiccated Christmas tree as frail and bent as an old woman; and a photograph of an African American Santa Claus, extremely buff, wearing a fur vest and red shorts.

"Mr. Johnson, please," Alex says to the doorman, brushing the snowflakes off the collar of his black cashmere topcoat.

"Which one? There are four Mr. Johnsons in this building."

"James. Or Jim."

"Make that three," the doorman says. "Those Johnsons are no longer in residence here."

"What?" Alex's voice is sharp, as if he is going to make the doorman revise his statement.

"Moved. In fact, there's a crew up there right now trying to get that place fixed up. You a friend?"

"Yes. Sort of. Employer, actually."

The doorman shakes his head. "Maybe you can tell me what the hell happened to that man. He was one of the nicest people in this building. Both of them, her too. Just as considerate and friendly and generous as you please. Very generous. The most generous people."

To doormen and waiters and all those people who serve us, we are our tips, Alex thinks. An envelope full of cash, a hand to proffer it, and the rest a blur...

"And then they just disappear," the doorman says. He cranes his neck, peers out through the glass doors at something he sees on the street, and then returns his attention to Alex. "Three months behind in the rent, is what I heard." He cocks his head and looks at Alex as if, as Johnson's employer, he might bear some responsibility for Jim's financial difficulties.

"I don't suppose they left a forwarding address," Alex says.

"They usually don't when they take off in the middle of the night. They didn't take anything with them. Just a couple of suitcases — the night doorman figured they were on their way to the airport or something. Plates and pictures and furniture and all the stuff they'd gotten for the baby, they just walked away from it — what was left of it."

"You say there's people working up there now?"

"If you saw the place you'd understand why."

"Would it be all right with you if I went up and had a look around?" Alex asks, and at the same time he places two fifty-dollar bills on the faux marble of the doorman's desk.

The doorman smooths the bills out, as if ironing them with his palm, and says, as he folds and pockets the money, "Nineteen C."

Alex goes up to 19C, and it is full of workmen talking and joking in Spanish as they drag furniture to the front of the four-room apartment. There is beige wall-to-wall carpeting throughout, and the carpeting is torn, stained, and — there is no other way to describe this — chewed, as if the Johnsons had been keeping wild animals here. Likewise, the walls are scored with deep gouges, and here and there holes have been punched in the plaster. The furniture the workers are disposing of is in a state of complete wreckage. Armchairs are without arms; wicker-bottomed dining chairs are without wicker; small sleeping pillows have been placed on the sofa as substitutes for missing cushions, and these pillows are covered in their own feathers. But all this mayhem is nothing compared to the foulness of this place. What is that smell? Rotted meat? Human waste? Cooking gas? Fear, of the most extreme, quaking, cowering kind? Or is it a combination of all these things, a hideous bouillabaisse of everything repulsive, hell's soup du jour?

The workmen have by now gotten used to the horrible odor, and their protective masks dangle on their cloth ties. They glance at Alex as they work, perhaps thinking he has some official connection to the building. With his hand covering his nose and mouth, Alex wanders from room to room, hoping to find something that will give him an insight into what has become of the Johnsons. He goes into the small utilitarian New York kitchen; shards of broken plates and glasses crunch beneath the leather soles of his Crockett and Jones oxfords. With some trepidation, he opens the refrigerator and, like a monstrous wave from an unsettled sea, the stench crashes down upon him, sending him reeling. His instinct is to slam the door shut, but he forces himself to peer into the refrigerator and what he sees is even more disturbing and disgusting than the smell: Ziploc bags containing rodents — mice, rats, squirrels, and a few plump, butterscotch-colored hamsters — are piled one on top of the other, all of them, despite the plastic wrap and refrigeration, in various states of decay.

Alex throws the door shut and staggers back, almost losing his footing on the shifting surface of all that broken glass. Three of the workmen have begun taking the furniture out, while the fourth is on his knees and starting in on the task of tearing up the remains of the carpeting. He glances at Alex but quickly looks away when Alex returns his gaze.

Alex walks into what had once been the Johnsons' bedroom. Stalactite-shaped stains render the bare mattress grotesque. A bedside lamp is on the floor, its long neck snapped in two. An oddly dainty and unmolested little bedside table stands next to the abandoned bed, some fake French Provincial probably picked up at Pottery Barn. Alex opens the table's single drawer. The blade of a straight razor greets him with a sinister wink of reflected light. Alex pulls the drawer all the way out. Besides the razor it holds a tube of Caswell-Massey shaving cream, and handcuffs.

Behind the bed, curtains cover a large window. Alex parts the curtains and sees the window has been completely covered in plywood. A little yellow Post-it is pressed to the wood, but the breeze of the moved curtain dislodges it, and it floats to the floor. Alex retrieves it, reads: Help us.

He hears voices — the workmen are coming back for more furniture. The one who stayed behind is saying something to them — Alex can understand just a smattering of it, but he surmises that his presence in the apartment is finally being questioned. He takes a quick look around. Is there anything here that can possibly tell him anything he needs to know? The Johnsons are gone. That is the overriding, salient fact of the matter. They descended into some horrible, disgusting squalor — and they fled.

On his way out of the apartment, Alex walks through the reeking kitchen again. He opens the refrigerator, takes one of the Ziploc bags, puts it in his pocket.

In the elevator going down, he shares the car with a woman and her two small children, but they get off on the sixth floor, where the building has a play area for children. Once he is alone, he takes his prize out of his pocket and devours the plump hamster in four quick bites. It is easily and without question the most delicious thing he has ever tasted.


From the book Breed, by Chase Novak, copyright 2012 by Chase Novak. Published by arrangement with Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group. Audio production copyright 2012 by the Hachette Book Group.

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