Carl's head instinctively snapped back, his flashlight and gun both pointed at the ceiling. He fully expected one of those things to be perched over them, braced against the walls of the hall with its feet and hands. It was the only place he could think of for one to be. Lightning illuminated the hall, a clap of thunder shook the house so forcefully that a picture fell to the floor.
The noise caused Donald to jump beside him. The lightning revealed nothing hanging above him waiting to pounce and tear into his flesh like a starving grizzly with rabies. From the corner of his eye he saw Riley spin to the left with her gun raised. Carl cursed as he realized he'd looked in the wrong direction first.
Riley didn't shoot her gun though as the cat, rattled by the thunder, bolted out of the shadows and screeched its way into the kitchen. John cursed loudly and jumped back from the fleeing animal. "Where are they!?" Xander hissed as he turned toward the stairs.
Lightning lit the house again; it was immediately followed by a clap of thunder. Carl strained to hear or see anything over the rolling noise and blasts of light but it was impossible. The flashes of light made him feel like he was tripping on acid in some kind of insane disco. Something moved to his right, he spun in that direction as the bathroom door swung open. John already had his gun pointed at the bathroom door. A flash of lightning made Carl think John had fired the gun but Rochelle was still standing there with her mouth wide open and her hands in the air. She'd jumped back as three guns pointed at her, the color had drained from her face so fast that Carl was amazed she was on her feet.
"No!" Mary Ellen screamed from where Carl had seen something move on his right.
Relief filled him as he realized just how lucky they were that no one had fired on the young girl. They were all too hyped up on adrenaline, too tired, and too unprepared for these kind of stresses on their bodies to react reasonably and on something more than just instinct.
"What are you doing here!?" John shouted at Rochelle. John had turned his gun away from her, as had Donald and Riley, but none of them lowered their weapons. Carl continued to scan the hallway and stairs as he searched for something hunting them.
"I... I didn't get a chance to pee at the gas station; with the rain I just couldn't hold it any longer," Rochelle stammered out.
Mary Ellen hurried down the hall toward them and held her hand out for her daughter. Rochelle grabbed hold of her hand and stepped through the doorway. "Did you unlock the basement door?" Carl asked Rochelle.
"I looked down there," Mary Ellen told him. "But I didn't go down."
"Thank God," Riley said as she lowered her gun.
"We thought something was here," Carl explained at Mary Ellen's questioning glance. "You can go get the others; we're just going to check out the basement."
"Ok," Mary Ellen said as she pulled Rochelle further back.
"There's a cat in the house," Riley told her in between thunder claps. "If you see something running around it's just the cat and it's terrified so let the others know."
Mary Ellen nodded and pulled Rochelle toward the front door with her. She grabbed a coat from the coat rack and tugged it over her head before hurrying out to the front porch. Rochelle remained inside while Mary Ellen began to wave at the others. Carl didn't wait to see the others enter before he opened the basement door and shone his flashlight down the stairs. He was surrounded by walls on both sides as he crept down the stairs. They could only go down one at a time in the narrow stairwell. At the bottom of the stairs were two doors, one to the left and the other to the right of him, both were closed.
Carl shifted his gun as he reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow. "You want to inney minney miney moe this one?" he asked John.
John was pressed close against his back, too close in the stifling heat of the basement. "We could always do some hot potato?" John responded tiredly.
Carl nodded and turned to the door on his right. "I say we just go this way."
“That works too.”
Carl turned the handle and thrust the door open to shine his light into the room. Nothing moved as he stepped into the lower level of the basement and examined the corners of the room. He spotted a boiler, a water heater, some boxes, a stationary bike, and a treadmill. Other lights ran over the ceiling and into the corners of the room. No cobwebs hung from the ceiling and he saw little dust amongst the boxes and exercise equipment.
They all pushed back into the hall and up the stairs so he could move out of the room and into the hall. Carl shifted the gun in his hand and opened the door on his left. His light flashed off of a TV that had to be at least eighty inches, a bar, a sectional sofa and more DVD's than he was sure were in the media section of a Walmart.
John let out a low whistle as he stepped into the room behind him. "What did this guy do for a living?"
"He was a lawyer, I think," Riley answered. "And what makes you think he was the one with all the money? She could have been the one that made all the money."
"Ok what did this couple do for a living?" John stressed.
"I don't know what she did," Riley admitted.
Carl suppressed a laugh as John scowled at her and stepped further into the room. Carl moved cautiously around the sofa and towards the bar. He eyed the bottles on the shelf as he edged around the bar and examined the space behind it.
"He had some good taste in movies," John said from the cabinets he was standing in front of with Riley and Xander.
Carl glanced at him before moving around the bar and toward a closet set off on the side. Doug had followed him toward the bar and was watching as Carl pulled the closet open. Carl couldn't help but release a low whistle at the four kegs, numerous cases, and bottles stacked within the massive walk-in closet.
"This guy was serious about his movies and booze apparently," he said as he closed the door on the closet. "That's more than most people consume in a lifetime."
Another loud clap of thunder shook the house, but the sound was muffled down here. He could hear the sound of footsteps crossing the floor though as the others entered. "So a drunken lawyer, not a bad life I suppose," John said. "He has every one of my favorites."
Riley reached forward and tugged something from the shelf. "Willy Wonka, one of my all time favorites," she said.
"You and that movie," Xander said.
A wistful smile tugged at her lips as she slid it back into the empty slot. "What can I say, my first crush was on an Oompa Loompa."
"I would have thought Charlie, but good to know you appreciate the fake orange spray tan."
"You and Carol knew every word of that movie. It was torture listening to it over and over again."
"I still know every word. I can sing you the songs if you'd like?" she asked.
"Not even a little bit," John said as he pulled another movie from the shelf.
"What do you have?" she demanded.
He turned the movie around and showed it to her. "The Goonies."
"Definitely a goodie," she agreed.
Carl and Donald were drawn forward as Xander pulled a movie down. It was such a strange thing to be doing right now, he knew that, but it was something almost normal on top of a whole lot of not normal.
"Top Gun," Xander said.
Riley rolled her eyes and shook her head. "We also had to suffer through that one, Goose."
"I am definitely Maverick," he informed her.
"I actually always preferred Ice Man," she told him.
"No taste," Donald said as he tugged a movie free.
"What do you have?" John asked.
"The Neverending Story."
"I've never heard of that one," Riley said as she took the case from him and examined it.
"You would have been in for a real treat with it. I spent many hours of my childhood watching it over and over again," Donald told her.
"You liked it that much?" Xander asked as he took the case from Riley.
"It was the only thing I had to watch," Donald said as he took the movie back.
Carl sensed something behind his words but he didn't question him as he stepped forward and tugged a movie from the shelf. "What do you have?" A lot of the lightheartedness had gone out of Riley's voice as she turned toward him, apparently he wasn’t the only one that sensed something more behind Donald’s words.
Carl flashed the box at them. "The Godfather."
"Good choice," Xander said as he stepped away from the cabinets. "We should probably get up there before Peter starts calling for a riot or some other crazy ass thing."
"I wish he'd chosen to go out on his own," Riley said.
"Mary Ellen deals with him well," Donald told them as he reluctantly returned the movie to the shelf.
"Let's hope she can continue to do so," Carl said as he headed back toward the stairs.
He found the others gathered within the living room. The lightning was still flashing but the thunder had lessened, as had the driving rain. The carpet squished beneath his boots as he made his way to the broken window and peered out. He could just barely make out the mound of animals in the flashes of light fading into the distance.
A shudder slid down his spine. Those mounds were some of the creepiest things he'd seen and that was saying a lot. Stepping away from the window he grabbed hold of the coffee table and propped it against the broken window. "It's a good place to stay for the night," he said. "I'll take the first watch, there are only two bedrooms upstairs but there's a large sectional downstairs at least two people can sleep on."
John helped him brace a chair against the coffee table and wedge it into place. "I'll sit with you."
Carl nodded and made his way out the front door to the porch. The rain was still falling in a steady stream that reminded him of a summer storm but this one did nothing to cool the air off. Xander and Riley followed them onto the porch and Xander helped him to hang the swing back up. Riley settled onto the porch against the house and drew her knees up as she leaned against the building. Carl slid the chain back into place and gestured toward the swing for her to sit but she shook her head.
"I'm fine where I am," she assured him.
Carl sank onto the swing and pushed back as John sat beside him. Carl kept his gaze averted from the pile at the edge of the field but it was a constant presence that he felt just at the edge of his vision. "Are you sure you don't want to go inside?" Xander asked Riley.
"It's too hot in there; I much prefer to be out here," she told him.
A small bit of hope filled Carl as he watched their hands entwine. It wasn't a completely crappy world, not yet anyway, he decided. He turned away from them as Riley rested her head on Xander’s shoulder and closed her eyes. "We're going to have to find more gas tomorrow," Carl said.
"We should probably check the barn in the morning too," Xander said.
Carl glanced at the small building set beside the house and nodded. His head turned as the screen door opened and Rochelle and Donald stepped out. Donald had the notebook tucked under his arm, he slid down the wall of the house on the other side of the door from Xander and Riley. Rochelle made her way toward them.
"I almost shot you earlier," John said grouchily.
"Sorry," she said. "It wasn't exactly my idea of a good time either."
She squished down on the other side of John, forcing him up against Carl. They both gave her a disgruntled look she chose to ignore as her feet swung happily back and forth. "You are a strange child," John informed her.
"So I've been told."
She rocked on the swing with them for a few minutes before rising to her feet and stretching her back. “I should probably get back inside.”
Carl watched her walk back into the house before turning his attention to the night once more. He struggled to stay awake but more times than not he found his chin drooping against his chest as sleep pulled at him. The soft sound of John’s snores didn’t help him any either.
“I’m going to stay awake if you want some rest,” Donald said.
Carl glanced over his shoulder to where Donald sat. Riley and Xander were both asleep with their heads bent close to each other. Donald had the notebook propped in his lap and a flashlight sitting beside him as the pen hovered over the page. Carl wondered what the man was writing but the idea of asking a question right now just seemed far too tiring. He nodded instead and turned back to face the quiet night.
Nothing stirred within the shadows but he found himself still fighting against the pull of sleep. He was terrified that if he went to sleep he wouldn’t wake up again, that he would simply cease to exist. Even still, his body finally succumbed to its desperate need for sleep. The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon when he woke again.
Rising to his feet, his back and knees cracked as he tried to work the knots out of his body. He rubbed at his twisted neck as he stretched it to the side and moved away from the swing that had almost crippled him over night. The sky lit with red, oranges, pinks, and yellows as the sun moved further upward.
“The sky is blue,” he hadn’t realized Riley was awake until she spoke.
His gaze drifted to the patch of blue sky on the horizon. It had been such a normal sight just a couple of weeks ago, now it filled him with awe. Hope coursed through him as he kept his eye on that small patch of blue. “It is,” he agreed.
“It’s beautiful.” He’d been so focused on the sky that he hadn’t heard Riley approach. She stood beside him now.
He kept his gaze on the sky as the sun rose higher and the blue faded away to be replaced with the hideous red he’d become accustomed to. He glanced at Riley and was surprised to see tears running slowly down her face. She looked bashfully at him and hastily wiped the tears away.
“That’s a good sign,” she said.
“Yes.” He squeezed her arm reassuringly and nodded toward the barn. “I’m going to check it out before we leave.”
“I’ll come with you.”
Carl nodded and made his way to the small barn next to the house. He grabbed hold of the door and slid it open as Riley braced herself with her gun. The scents of hay, straw, manure, animal, and leather drifted over him. It wasn’t unpleasant but it wasn’t something he was overly familiar with either.
He tilted his head back to study the rafters. Thankfully there wasn’t a loft in this barn and he didn’t see anything moving through the beams that ran across the ceiling either. Riley stepped to the side and peered into the first stall while he moved to the one on the left. Hay and straw were stacked inside of it along with at least fifteen bags of oats. He opened the small door next to the feed room to reveal a room filled with saddles and bridles.
Riley was at the end of the other row of stalls and was turning back toward him when he closed the door again. He lifted the lid on a trunk and peered inside at the brushes and blankets stacked neatly within. Riley reached his side as he close the lid again. “There are some oats that we should probably take with us,” he told her. “I’ll go get the truck.”
“Ok,” she said as she lifted the lid on the trunk and peered inside.
Xander was making his way toward the barn when he went back outside. “She’s inside,” Carl told him.
“Thanks.” He tugged tiredly at his disordered hair as he made his way by.
John climbed down the porch steps and hurried toward him. Donald must have already retreated inside as the porch was vacated. “Where you going?” John asked around a yawn.
“There’s some oats in the barn I want to take with us.”
John looked at him as if he’d just informed him that there were hitchhiking aliens in the barn that he planned to drive to San Diego. “You want us to eat horse food?”
“No, but I also don’t want us to starve. We’re not exactly in the position to turn things down.”
John hopped into the passenger seat. Carl drove over to the barn and backed the truck up to it. Riley and Xander had already pulled some bags out of the room and were waiting for them when Carl climbed out and opened the back doors on the truck. John climbed into the back and began to push things to the side.
“Toss out some waters,” Carl said to him.
John handed three bottles out to them and took hold of the first bag Xander dropped in the truck. A shadow fell over the front of the barn, drawing his attention toward where Mary Ellen stood with Rochelle at her side. “Do you need our help with anything?” she asked quietly.
“If you want to start packing up the food inside, that would help,” Carl told her as he tossed another bag into the back of the truck.
She nodded and turned Rochelle around with her to head back into the house. “The sky was blue this morning, briefly, but it was blue again,” Riley said. Xander and John stopped moving to stare at her. “It was beautiful.”
“It sounds like it,” Xander said.
Carl glanced out at the red sky spread out before him. This farm was almost a trip back into normalcy and yet he couldn’t wait to get on the road again. There was something about this normalcy that bothered him now. His gaze returned to the pile of horses in the corner, he wanted to be as far from here as they could be by night.