The broken window, agape like a mouth, leading to the darkness inside the house. Fragments of glass still stuck to the frame, glistened with caked blood, jutted outward threateningly. Whoever entered the house had cut himself up pretty badly.
Joe looked at the blood with calm suspicion. He craned his neck and looked inside. Jason was not as tall, so only the top of his head rose over the window stool, offering him no view. Joe came to the door, tried the lock as he did at the last house, and found it locked. He pressed himself against the wood and nudged it lightly, as if calculating his course. Then he backed up rushed against it, rattling the wood, sending a vibrato coursing through the foundation of the house.
The door did not give in. It was not as fragile as the door to Jason's room. The wooden threshold stood solid like a stone monument. The man tried again, as his shoulder collided with the surface of the door, his head snapped against the wood. He let out a quiet yelp and bent over, rubbing the side of his head. Jason wanted to laugh, but the humor was not of the magnitude to actually express it.
"We can go through the window." The boy offered.
"No, there's still blood on the glass. If we cut ourselves it's over."
Jason looked over at the next window, untouched, unbroken, its blinds drawn shut.
"How'd bout that one?" He said.
His neighbor looked at him and grinned. He went to the intact window and proceeded to strike it with the butt of his rifle. There was a twang as the glass shattered inward. Knocking aside the loose jutting shards, Joe reached inside and tugged free the blind, shutter and all, and dropped it on the ground.
"Stay here." He said, then placed his hands on the window stool, lifted himself up onto it, ducking his head and landed on the other side. "I'll open the door."
Jason went to the massive front door as the lock turned with a clack. He let himself in. His neighbor looked down at him with fascination, not exactly at him but at his hand. He looked down and realized he had been holding the handgun, pointing it from the waist like an amateur. Joe looked at him and smiled.
They stood in the living room. A glass table sided by two sofas sat in front of them, a flat screen TV etched into the walls laid beyond. The walls around them were painted in merry green, Jason could imagine the owners, probably a young couple, newly married, still happy and optimistic about life, awaiting for the first child. Wherever they were, they didn't respond when Joe bashed down the door.
He had expected the house to be in disarray, but it was neat as if the intruder never went in. On the smooth laminated floor, scarlet dots of blood plopped, scattered sparsely, seeming to form a trail. They backed away from the blood, avoid risking exposure to the contaminant. The trail led past the L shaped wall separating the kitchen and the living room, curving right into a corridor.
Joe armed his rifle at the ready, Jason trailed behind him, trying his best to keep quiet, to appear invisible. His heart lurching in his chest, he felt his sweat oiling the grip of the handgun, and he began to doubt himself, doubting if he would have the guts to shoot anyone. But it was going to be okay, as long as he obediently stayed behind Joe, Joe was the hero, the ultimate survivor, the hunter, he was just an apprentice, tagging along to learn the trade.
Around the corner, there wasn't a corridor as they had expected, a thin, winding staircase lead to the second floor. This area was poorly lit. As the steps wound upward toward the higher floor, the shadows, even in the day, loomed treacherously.
Two drops of blood marked the first step of the staircase.
"Stay here." Joe said with a whisper, his finger pointing at Jason's feet. The boy nodded.
The steps groaned under the man's weight. Jason winced at his every move, all hope of stealth seemed thrown out the door. If an infected was in here, they would be heard already. He armed the gun to his face, standing like an action movie hero. Joe had half disappeared above the stairs, only his boots were seen as he slowly navigated his way. His footsteps faded.
Suddenly, Jason felt very alone.
It was so quiet that he could hear the tinnitus in his ears. He could hear Joe's booted feet trampling the carpet above him. Corners of the house was still engulfed in darkness. It was obvious the owners left at night, as the blinds were all shut, blocking all the light from the outside world. He was tempted to flip the light switch, but in doing so, he would be inviting the unpredictability, and it was not the crazies, but their erratic, unpredictable behavior was what scared him the most. He remembered the way the infected woman yesterday ramming through the windowpane, oblivious to any sense of civilized privacy, ignorant to the hazards of her surrounding as she ran toward and fought the bigger infected man, no fear, no self-preservation, just pure manic rage acting as a high octane fuel to drive her to kill, until she fell thirty feet head first from the second story and snapped her neck. His handgun suddenly feel inadequate. The dark recesses of the house stared at him like invisible predators, preying on his very soul.
He backed away from the stairs, toward the kitchen, where the L shaped wall painted the kitchen in incomplete blackness. In the cloak of shadow, he felt somehow safer.
He could no longer hear Joe's footsteps. He didn't know how big the second story was, there could be as much as four bedrooms up there, and the infected could be hiding in any of them. Joe said they did not like the sun, they were sensitive to it, and since they prowled the night, would they be sleeping in the day? It felt like a cat and mouse game, and the winner would be the one with the element of surprise, and at that, both Joe and the infected were on equal ground.
In the back of his mind, apart from the ringing tinnitus, he heard a muffled stirring.
It sounded as if someone was thrashing on the bed. The sound came suddenly and went on in irregular interval. Jason imagined someone, hopefully the owner, having a bad dream and lashing out in his bed sheet. But things were unpredictable.
He raised the handgun with both hands, aiming at the source of the sound. It came from his floor. The thrashing continued, and Jason thought he could hear growling amidst the mysterious sound. He stood still, listening, the weapon grew heavy in his small hands. His heart was beating louder than ever, the tension was almost palpable. He prayed to see Joe's boots descending the winding stairs, to his rescue.
"Joe." He whispered. His voice dissolved in the quiet air. It was no use, Joe would never hear him. He considered running, bolting out of the house, but he wouldn't get far, he saw first hand how fast the infected were. And beside, his companion was still in the house, likely unaware of another presence.
It wasn't really sure it was an infected. Okay, there was blood at the windows, but it could mean anything, maybe an actual burglar cut himself trying to break in the house. He had to make sure. If he tried going up the stairs to find Joe, the steps would creak, alerting his position. He quietly slipped out of his shoes, tiptoeing across the smooth, laminated tiling, toward the staircase.
He went past the stairs, entering an actual corridor. The corridor ended ahead of him, where an opened door was on his right, a closed one faced him at the deadend. He approached it with shaky fleetness. The door on the right was an entrance into the narrow laundry room, a dryer was stacked on top of a windowed washing machine. Another door lined at the end of the laundry room, probably leading to the side garage.
Frantic thrashing pierced the air. It came from the room ahead. Ignoring the empty laundry room, he tiptoed toward the room ahead. The door wasn't closed, but slightly opened, forming a small slit big enough to look through. Jason lowered his weapon and narrowed his eyes into the slit.
He saw a king size bed in the middle of the room, directly above the headrest, a large double window hung, its shutter cutting the outside light into a horizontal vent, projecting these bright parallel slits into the room. In the bed, bloody and sick, was a man. His clothes, which might have consisted of plaid business dress shirt and khaki pants, were horribly shredded and browned in dried blood. He laid on the bed, arms outstretched, staining the bedsheet with that burgundy hue of death, his chest rose and fell in rapid breaths. A terrible stench, a smell of rot and strong metal, reached Jason's nose, he tried fighting off the need to heave.
The infected's hand rose and jabbed at the air, then fell back to his side. The other arm rose and swung, hard enough to move his torso, then fell again. He was making that thrashing sound as his limbs fell back into the bed. Jason began to retreat, slower than ever before. The infected was hibernating, but it wasn't a guarantee that he wouldn't attack him upon hearing the slightest sound.
He moved past the laundry room and toward the stairs. A hand grabbed his shoulder, another closed around his mouth.
"Sssshhhhh..." Joe whispered, letting go of his hands. He looked down at him, then at the door near the laundry room.
"He's in there." Jason mumbled the words.
He began to retreat again, almost out of the corridor, toward the stairs, but Joe held in him in place. Before he could look up and question the older man, the stairs creaked behind him.