The few short seconds in the basement blurred, mired in panic, shock growing roots from his feet into the concrete floor. The wood support frame at the bottom of the stairs exploded, sending splinters in all directions. Wind from the force blew back his hair, making Tim close his eyes. This simple movement probably saved his vision. Shards of wood punctured his cheeks, forehead, jaw, nose, neck and shoulder. Sharp pinches from the wooden lancets tattooed his left side. It hurt, stung even, but he didn’t move, didn’t even cry out. A hand tugged at his wrist, the clamp so tight Tim winced, in a detached, reflexive way, as splinters of wood pushed deeper into his skin and he was yanked out of the doorway. Another boom thundered through the room. Something plucked at Tim’s shoulder. It burned, as though someone held a lighter to his skin. Jason stared at Tim, wide-eyed, mouth a lipless line, nostrils flaring with desperate inhalations. A splinter of wood stood straight up from Jason’s head and left a thin line of blood trailing down his face. His own wounds far from his mind, Tim would’ve gasped at the image presented to him in a mirror. Instead, he thought, Ouch, Jason…
Jason pushed Tim onto the mattress, and peered at the stairs with his gun in his hand. A reverberation of rings from the shotgun blasts plugged Tim’s ears. The stairs remained empty. Nausea, like oily serpents did laps in Tim’s stomach. His body trembled and his hands clenched into spastic fists. Why weren’t they coming down? Why were they shooting at all? Tim’s crying was the first sound to penetrate the ringing in his ears. His chest hiccoughed, tears stung the bloody holes in his face from the shrapnel and time returned to normal.
Tim heard Jason yell, but it was muffled, like he was speaking into a pillow, “Whoa-whoa! What the hell you shooting at?” Tim focussed on the words, to make sure he was hearing it right.
From the top of the stairs, “What have you got down there?”
“None of your damn business!”
“I’m making it my damn business! You don’t want us coming down the stairs to look do ya?”
Jason flicked a glance at Tim, grimaced and wiped blood from his brow. Tim saw Jason struggling with what to say. Tim felt anger bubbling in his chest, surprised at its intensity considering a moment before he was on the cusp of tearful hysteria. The rage pulsed heated blood through him, vibrating and expanding a feeling of power inside him. How dare they come into his house and shoot at him! Dumb bastards probably came down from the hills to see what they could loot from the dead and defenseless. As his friend Kevin used to say, a real couple of cock-beards. Before Jason could respond, he said, “Fuck you! You goddamn redneck hillbilly douche-bags! Come on down then! Come and see what we got for you!”
Jason, mouth catching flies, gazed at Tim with stupefied awe.
Tim, infused with hatred, continued, “Just know, you’ll pay for every step you take! Come on then assholes! Let’s see how many bullets can fit into your sorry excuses for a body.”
A new voice floated down to them, but his words weren’t addressed to Tim and Jason. They were directed at the man with the shotgun.
“What they got down there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” The second voice was incredulous. A calm voice, a bit of a southern drawl to it, scared Tim more than the bearded man’s bellows. And, by the tremulous reply of the man, Tim suspected the bearded man was terrified of him too.
“No. I haven’t had a chance to look.”
“What were you shooting at then?”
“Uh, a couple of dudes. One’s a kid.”
“Let me get this straight. You walked down the hall, looked down these here stairs, saw, and I quote, ‘Two dudes,’ and decided to open up on them with a shotgun? Is that how it played out?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Did you hit one of them at least?”
“I don’t think so.”
Tim heard an exaggerated sigh, “Larry? What the hell am I gonna do with you?”
“I’ll do better next time, Lyle. I swear to you.”
“I find that very doubtful. Very, very doubtful. Now, go sit in the kitchen. They have some milk in the fridge. Pour yourself a glass, and think about how you could’ve done better. Think on it good, now! I’m gonna ask you about it later.”
Footsteps sounded down the hall. Tim tracked their progression to the kitchen.
Tim twitched when the man spoke to them, “Well, I’d like to apologized on behalf of my associate. Thinking is not something he does too often. It gives him a headache.”
Jason said, “What do you want?”
“I’m glad you asked. If only I had noticed you guys first. Things might have gone a lot different.”
The man’s voice dropped to a growl, “I don’t miss.”
Jason swallowed and shared a nervous glance with Tim.
He said, “Just tell us what you want.”
“Sure. Right to negotiations. I like it. Well, I’ve got plenty of food. I’ve got me a nice prisoner van to travel in where I can keep my collectibles safe in the back. A lot of stuff suddenly became available when all of this started. I’m not lacking much,” he chuckled and the sound pulled the skin taut across Tim’s body. How could a voice cause such terror? But it wasn’t really the voice was it? It was what he said, how he said it and what he didn’t say that scared Tim. The splinters in his body throbbed dully. His eyes stayed on the stairs, expecting a rush of feet at any moment.
“I was wondering, gentlemen, if you happen to have any women down there with you? If so, I would truly like to make their acquaintance.”
Jason said, “We have no women down here, but if I did? Frankly, you’re the last guy I would ever introduce to them.”
“That was mighty hurtful friend. Don’t be insulted, but I would rather come down and have a look for myself. Just to make sure.”
Jason said, “You can try. But you won’t like what’s waiting for you. I can promise you that.” Jason pulled the hammer back on his gun. The click was very loud. A semi-automatic, it didn’t need to have the hammer cocked, but Jason hoped the menacing click would dissuade the man from coming down the stairs. They watched the stairs.