Jack followed the frame of the house to the first window. He felt around the casing; the window screen was tight and would not budge. “If we didn’t have to leave the jail so fast, I would’ve had time to find my pocket knife, my wallet, and my shoes,” he said to Sarah, who was standing next to him. “If we don’t find an unlocked window without a screen, I may need to use this nightstick to break the glass.”
Sarah did not say anything. She followed him up a grass-covered slope to another window. It was dark and motionless inside; even the barking had stopped.
Jack shined his flashlight through the glass and onto the window latch. “It’s unlocked. Hold this,” he said, handing Sarah the flashlight and billy club. “What do you have in that purse of yours?” Jack asked, trying to remove the window screen. “Anything sharp?”
Sarah opened the flap of her messenger bag. “Will a nail file work?” she asked while fumbling inside the bag. She pulled out a metal file.
“We’ll try it.” Jack took the file, held it like a knife, and pressed hard onto the mesh screen until it began to tear. He tore the rest with his hands and began pressing and pushing on the window rail. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything to pry with, would you?”
“This is a purse, not a toolbox,” Sarah said, rummaging through it. “How about a pen?” She held up a ballpoint pen.
Jack chuckled as he took the plastic pen and began prying the rail from the sill until there was a gap large enough for his fingers. He slid the glass up until the opening was wide enough for him to climb through. “Hand me the flashlight,” he said. Sarah gave him the light. He took it and shined it through the open window, illuminating the room inside the house. “It’s a laundry room.”
Sarah looked inside. Without the glass, there was no reflection, making it easier for her to see into the space. A large utility sink with dirty rags in the tub was below the window. The washer and dryer were lined up next to it in the small room. The rest of the cramped area was filled with an ironing board and numerous storage boxes.
“Wait here,” Jack said, climbing through the window with his billy club and flashlight. After negotiating the sink, he stood and shined the light toward a closed door. He held the club up as he walked toward the entranceway. Quietly he turned the knob and pulled the door open. Nothing happened. He motioned for Sarah to climb through the open window.
It was not easy to climb through the window without making noise. She fell forward into the sink, landing square on the filthy and sticky rags. Her legs dangled, one leg outside the basin and the other on the window frame. She twisted around, scraping her spine and elbows on the corner of the sink and faucet until she faced Jack.
Jack held back a laugh as he walked over to Sarah, reached around her gently and pulled her to a standing position. They stood face to face, his strong arms still around her. “Are you okay?”
Before Sarah had time to answer, or feel the warmth of his body pressed against hers, there was a scratching sound at the window. Sarah turned and saw Jibber trying to jump inside. “Jibber, no!” she said in a loud whisper, reluctantly breaking away from Jack.
Jibber winced and stopped her jumping. Jack walked with light feet to the open door; Sarah tiptoed behind him. He shined his flashlight into the other room. “It’s the kitchen,” he whispered.
Sarah followed Jack past a sink full of dirty dishes, a saltshaker tipped on its side by the stove, and a garbage can that smelled of rancid meat. When they crossed from the vinyl flooring into the carpeted living room, a high-pitched barking moved from the upstairs, down the steps to just in front of them. A small white teacup poodle, with pom-poms on the tail and hips, and bracelets at the ankles, nipped at the air a few feet from their shins. The little pink bow on the poodle’s head bounced with each bark.
Jack hissed like a snake at the pooch. The sound caught it off guard, causing it to momentarily stop barking and back away. The silence did not last long; the feisty animal began barking loudly, sounding like it would rip apart anyone who dared to intrude into the house. “Ignore it,” Jack said. “A cat could beat that thing up. I’m sure its bark is worse than its bite.”
“Let’s go upstairs; the bedrooms are probably up there,” Sarah said, pointing toward the stairway. They walked past one of the largest flat screen televisions that she had ever seen inside anyone’s house. Framed pictures were on the wall next to the TV and on a bookcase. Sarah’s heart sank when she noticed that the most prominent picture was of Larry and Bertha with the boys, poised like the Huxtable family, happy and perfect; making her feel like she could easily be replaced.
“Come on,” Jack said, motioning for her to follow him up the steps. If it were not for the head-splitting barks coming from the dog directly behind them, the house would be quiet. No Larry, no Bertha and sadly, no kids.
When they got to the top of the stairs, Sarah was losing hope. Thoughts of the boys following the light and turning into those things made her heart heavy and eyes well up with tears as they walked down the hall to the first door on the left. Jack motioned for her to stand back as he pushed the door open. He entered the room like a detective looking for a homicidal maniac. “No one’s in here.”
Sarah looked inside the small room. Pink light spilled in from the open curtains revealing a bed with its spread pulled up and tucked around pillows. A throw blanket, alarm clock, and other items were neatly in their places. Must be the guest room, she thought. Jack was already inspecting the second room when she focused back on the hallway.
“So far it’s looking like no one’s home,” Jack said, his posture less rigid, voice above a whisper. “This must be your exes’ room.”
The yapping poodle followed Jack as he left Larry’s room and went to the next. Sarah looked into Larry and Bertha’s bedroom. A sliver of pale pink light bled through a slit between the drape panels and lay across a disheveled flowered comforter. A large ashtray sat atop a wooden dresser, probably holding Larry’s pocket change instead of ashes and butts. She had seen enough.
“This one’s the bathroom,” Jack called out from the end of the hall. “There’s one room left.”
Sarah met him at the closed door. They paused, looking at each other briefly before Jack placed his hand on the knob and pushed the door open. Jack held the club firmly. “Is anyone in there?” he called.
The room was black; the curtains were drawn tight. Sarah watched as Jack stepped into the silent room. She reached in, feeling for the light switch. While she ran her hand along the wall, she noticed a lump under the blankets of one of the two twin beds; it looked like a body. Without warning, someone charged at them from the corner of the room just as Sarah found the light switch and turned it on.
“Stop!” Sarah yelled, grabbing Jack’s forearm to stop him from swinging.
“Mom,” Willis shouted, his voice was a mix of high-pitched fear and a gasp of relief. “Why didn’t you say something so that I would know it was you?”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah said, hugging him tight. “Are you okay?”
Willis hugged her back. “I’m all right, Mom.”
She released him and looked around the cluttered room. Panic began to overtake her. “Where’s Georgie?”
“They took him,” Willis said, dropping his eyes toward the navy blue carpet, scattered with lint and dog hair.
“Who took him?” Jack asked, shaking the tension from his arms.
Willis looked at Jack, frowning. “Who are you?”
“This is Jack, he’s helping us,” Sarah said, stepping between the two of them.
Willis uncoiled the fist that had formed and sat on the bed, shoulders slumping. “Dad and Bertha took him. Georgie didn’t want to go, but they forced him to.”
“Were they affected?” Sarah asked.
“What do you mean?” Willis asked, looking up, his frown returning.
Jack reached down to pet the dog that was finally quiet and wagging its tail. “Were they acting strangely in any way?”
Willis paused in thought, then said, “Yeah, not long after I heard the phone ring, Dad and Bertha began walking around the house like they were looking for something, but they weren’t talking. They even walked like they couldn’t bend their arms and legs very well. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah said, sitting down beside him. She pulled away the blanket on the bed to reveal three pillows positioned lengthwise underneath. “Keep talking about what went on.”
Willis continued. “They kept looking out the windows, staring at the red and blue stuff in the sky. They didn’t say much, just kind of paced around the house until they decided it was time to leave. Georgie and I watched them. They ignored us, so we just hung out in our bedroom; then they came in and got Georgie before they left.”
“How was Georgie acting? I mean was he acting like his usual self?” Sarah asked, her stomach was queasy while she waited for his answer.
“Yeah, he was his usual pesky little brother self,” Willis said, amused with his reply. “Me and Georgie didn’t know what the hell was going on. Georgie didn’t want to go, they forced him.”
Jack pushed the curtains aside with the baton. “Where’d they take him?”
“They were heading toward the old skating rink. I tried to help Georgie, but Dad looked at me with . . . with evil eyes, like he would kill me if I didn’t leave them alone.”
Sarah stood. “We’ve got to find Georgie. Quick, pack your things; we’re getting out of here.”