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Wilfred James, a farmer in Hemingford Home, Nebraska, owns eighty acres of farmland that have been in his family for generations. His wife Arlette owns an adjoining one-hundred acres willed to her by her father. Wilfred scorns the thought of living in a city, but Arlette is discontented with farm life and wants to move to Omaha. She seeks to sell her land to a livestock company for use as a pig farm and slaughterhouse. If she does so, Wilfred's property will no longer be farmable and he will be forced to sell as well. Wilfred resorts to manipulating his teenaged son, Henry, into helping him murder his own mother.
As part of their plot, Wilfred and a reluctant Henry get Arlette drunk. Arlette proceeds to make crude remarks about Henry's girlfriend, Shannon Cotterie, which angers the boy enough to commit to Wilfred's plot. After taking Arlette to bed, Wilfred brutally slashes her throat with a butcher knife. Wilfred and Henry then dump the body in a well behind the barn. Later, as Wilfred dumps his blood-soaked mattress into the well with Arlette, he notices that her body has become infested with rats.
Wilfred decides to fill in the well to hide the body, but knows that doing so will arouse suspicion. He purposefully has one of his aged cows fall in the well to provide a cover story for filling it in. Right afterwards, the local sheriff—acting on behalf of the livestock company—searches the farmhouse to look for Arlette, finding nothing. Wilfred and Henry fill the well, but a rat crawls out of the soil. Henry kills it, believing that Arlette is now haunting them. Wilfred later encounters a rat when it attacks one of his other cows, severing one of her teats.
A few months later, Henry—who has become emotionally troubled since the murder—impregnates Shannon. The pregnancy sours the friendship between Wilfred and Shannon's father, Harlan, a neighboring farmer. Shannon is sent to a Catholic school for pregnant girls in Omaha, but Henry helps her escape. They begin a highly publicized career as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-style bank robbers, becoming wanted in several states.
Wilfred becomes emotionally destitute in Henry's absence. He again encounters the rat from the barn, which bites Wilfred's hand and causes it to become severely infected, necessitating its amputation. Soon after, Wilfred claims that Arlette's living corpse—accompanied by a large group of rats—leaves the confines of the well and enters the farmhouse, confronting him. Arlette gives him a detailed premonition of the violent demise of Henry and the still-pregnant Shannon in Nevada. Soon afterwards, the roof of Wilfred's house caves in during a storm.
When Arlette's prophecy comes true, Wilfred tries to sell the land parcel he killed her for. However, Harlan and the townspeople, all disgusted with Wilfred, refuse to help him. He is forced to leave Hemingford Home as a pariah after selling the land to the livestock company for a pittance. He moves to Omaha and spends the first two years visiting the scenes of Henry's crimes and drinking away the money he received from selling the land. He finds two jobs—as a garment factory worker and a librarian. He quits both, he claims, when the rats begin to stalk him again.
Wilfred sits in a hotel room in Omaha, writing down his story and claiming that Arlette, Henry, and Shannon — along with the rats — are present. Wilfred plans to commit suicide before the rats consume him, but apparently misplaces his gun. The story ends with a newspaper clipping about Wilfred's death, stating that he was found with bite marks that appeared to be self-inflicted; this leaves the reader to speculate about whether Wilfred's account was true or delusional. Wilfred's papers are found to be illegible, having been chewed to pieces.