Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Chapter 12: Fourth Night, Part IV

Ethan grabbed the flashlight and set a brisk pace through Alexis’ room and into the master bedroom. He walked around the bed and stopped on the far side. Vernon stood beside him. “This the closet that’s been giving you so much trouble?” he asked, pointing with the light. Shadows crowded away from the illumination. Vernon watched them brood in the corners and nodded. “Alright then. When I come back out of there, I hope you’ll actually listen for once.”

Vernon grabbed his arm. “Ethan, don’t!”

He smiled and pushed Vernon’s hand away. “Don’t worry. Just give me a minute, then open the door. I’ll be fine, and maybe you’ll come around.”

Reaching out, Vernon tried to grab him again, but Ethan shrugged him off and stepped into the closet. He shoved clothes aside, stepped in and turned around. His knees buckled a bit as if something had bumped into his back. “Looks like we’ll need to get an exterminator out here in the morning. Some big rats in here from the feel. Give me about two minutes, then open the door.”

Vernon opened his mouth in protest, but before he could say anything, Ethan leaned out, grabbed the knob and pulled the door shut. Vernon saw the light swishing side to side through the crack near the floor, then it winked out.

Something thudded against the door. Ethan gave a muffled shout. Something clattered against the floor. And silence.

Uncertainty kept Vernon rooted to the spot. He knew he should open the door. But what’s the point? It’s not like there’s anybody in there anymore. He shoved a fist into his mouth to stifle a giggle. “Get a grip on yourself,” he muttered and jumped at the sound of his own voice. He took a deep breath and walked to the door. The knob felt slippery in his sweaty grasp. Vernon wiped his hands on his shirt, grabbed the doorknob, counted to five and yanked it open, taking a long step backward as he did so.

Vernon watched as the darkness rolled outward and went through its usual display of flattening and retreating from the overhead light. A part of him wondered how he could stand there and witness such a thing so calmly. Guess you really can get used to anything. Another wild titter threatened to bubble up. He forced it back down. Once it appeared the shadows had withdrawn as much as they were going to, Vernon took a couple of hesitant steps toward the closet. Ethan, of course, was nowhere to be seen. But a round piece of metal protruded from the darkness. He dropped to his knees and crept forward until his outstretched hand stood a few fingers’ breadth from the shiny object. He stayed still for several moments. Then his hand shout out, grabbed it and dragged it out. He half expected shadows to cling to it like some sort of glue that would snap back and yank him with it. But the flashlight pulled free easily enough and he scuttled backward without any interference. He clutched it to his chest and clicked it on and off a few times to prove to himself it still worked. He kept it pointed at the closet, watching the light drill its way through the darkness. Finally, tired of the game, he shut the flashlight off. Vernon stood, stretched and went into the living room. After a few tugs, he wrestled the door open and walked out onto the front porch.



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Part V coming soon!

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Chapter 12: Fourth Night, Part III

Dark gripped his flesh with cold talons. He grabbed the doorframe with his other hand and pulled. Nothing. He tried again. Still nothing. A tug from the other side jerked him into the room up to his shoulder. The cold crept up his arm. Vernon turned his head. Shadows were trying to cover more of his body. Only the kitchen light kept them at bay. Wonderful. My luck, the lights will go out in just a second. He looked at Ethan, still leaning against the refrigerator. Ethan scratched his head and arched an eyebrow. “A little help?” he grunted, slipping a few inches back. Fingers started to cramp as he tightened his grip.

Ethan shook his head. “Do you really think this little display will prove anything, Vern?”

Vernon gaped at him and momentarily lost his hold on the doorframe. His shirt ripped as it raked across the doorway. Clawing for a new purchase, he managed to halt his progress just as the cold dark reached his jawline. One of his legs had been dragged across the threshold, increasing the pull on his body. He grimaced as the muscles in his fingers and forearm started to cramp. “Come on, Ethan,” he gasped. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” The fingernail on his pinky ripped free. Tears started in his eyes, and he lost his grip. Wood bit into his arm as he wrapped his elbow and knee around the doorway. Another jerk pulled him a few inches back. Pain flared in his arm. I can’t keep this up. So much for a demonstration. I wonder if Ethan will try to come in there after me. The cramps spread up his arm. His hold started to slip. Vernon closed his eyes and took a deep breath as his grip weakened further.

Nothing dragged him backward. In fact, the pain and tension in his wrist had increased. Cocking one eye open, he found Ethan holding to his arm with both hands. His friend leaned backward, bracing one foot against the doorway just above Vernon’s leg. Muscles and tendons stood out in his neck and forearm. He muttered something through gritted teeth.

“What?”

“I said, let go!” Ethan shouted.

“I’m not holding on to anything!”

“I’m not playing, Vern,” he grated. Sweat dripped from his forehead. “Either let go, or I do. I’m not going to give myself a heart attack over this.”

I think he’s serious. His old friend looked like he might pop a vessel any minute. But for now, he kept his hold. Groaning, Vernon strained to help free himself. He pulled with the leg wrapped around the doorframe. He’d lost all feeling in the arm and leg trapped in darkness, but he tried to make them push, as well. Slowly, inch by painful inch, he scraped past the wall and back into the kitchen. Ethan’s sweaty hands made the progress difficult. Every few minutes, Vernon had to brace himself as Ethan let go with one hand, wiping it on his pants, then repeat the process with his other hand. At least he’s holding on. He slipped half an inch between sweaty palms. For now. Another lunge, and he managed to pull himself halfway out of the back room. He used the wall to support himself as Ethan pulled one hand free to wipe clear. Vernon had only a bare warning before the other slipped free.

He lurched backward, barely able to halt his backward slide. The abrupt stop slammed him into the doorframe. His free arm banged the wall. He heard a bang from the other side, felt his arm hit something. Light flooded the back room. Vernon fell to the floor and laughed at Ethan’s sudden, surprised expression. “Guess I should have tried that sooner.”

Ethan put both hands behind his neck and tilted his head back. “It would have been better if you’d just let go when I told you. I don’t know what you were trying to prove, playing tug-o-war with me like that.” His neck cracked as he turned it side to side. “I’d send you my chiropractor bill if I didn’t already know you don’t have any money.”

“I wasn’t trying to prove anything.” He stood and dusted his pants off. “I told you I wasn’t holding onto anything. Does this look like I’m playing?” He pulled at his shirt, exposing the tears. “Or this?” Blood dripped from his arm as he shoved it into Ethan’s face. Several gashes ran from elbow to wrist. Out of the cold night, the wounds were starting to hurt. Look like I’ve been manhandled by an eagle or something. He kept the other hand clenched in a fist. The pressure helped dull the pain from his missing fingernail. “What do you have to say about that?”

Blowing noisily and shaking his head, Ethan pushed the arm aside and stared him in the face. “Look, Vern, I’ve always tried to be a good friend. Sometimes that means telling folks what they don’t want to hear.” He leaned back against the wall. “I got to tell you, there’s something seriously wrong in your head. I know you’ve been through a lot lately. You lost a job. All your money’s gone. You had to move across the state, and your marriage hit the skids. I guess the stress just got to you.”

“Stress? You don’t know the first thing –”

“I’m not done.” A hard edge entered his tone. “My guess is you just snapped. Your wife and daughter left, and you concocted some sort of fantasy because you couldn’t deal with the fact they’re gone. Look at yourself.” He gestured at the bleeding arm. “You’re hurting yourself to make it true. I don’t know if you’re doing it on purpose or if you’re even aware of it. You sure seem like you believe all this, and I don’t think you’d make me bust a gut for some kind of make believe.”

“You still think I’m making all this up?”

“Maybe not on purpose, but yeah.”

“After everything I’ve showed you…” Vernon trailed off and shook his head.

“What have you shown me, Vern? Huh? A table with nothing under it? A cabinet with some mice and roaches in it?”

“That cabinet was empty, Ethan. You know that.”

“Of course it was empty. With all the banging and light, anything in there would have run off. Just because you didn’t see anything doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It certainly doesn’t mean there’s some kind of creepy crawly dark waiting to drag you away. It’s just part of this dream of yours, just like you grabbing the wall in there to pretend the darkness got you.” Vernon tried to get a word in, but Ethan overrode him, turning around to point through the living room. “I’m not sure I even want to know what was going through your head when you were trying to tear my house down.”

“I told you about that.”

“I know what you told me, but what was it really?” He waved dismissively. “I doubt you even know. But you have got to snap out of it, Vern. For your son’s sake if not your own. Face facts: You’re alone here now. Cheryl and Alexis aren’t coming back.”

Vernon laughed hysterically. “You think I don’t know that?”

“Not for the reasons you think. They’re not sucked away into the dark here. Your wife left you and took one of the kids with her. She left the baby with you. Looks to me like she just couldn’t take anymore of the stress y’all had been under and decided to split with her baby girl.”

“I’m telling you, they haven’t gone anywhere.”

“Snap out of it!” Ethan yelled. “Look, I’m going to prove to you there’s nothing here, then we’re going to go get you some help.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just come with me.”
++++

Part IV coming soon!

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chapter 12: Fourth Night, Part II

Vernon frowned and nodded. He climbed out of the recliner, waited for Ethan to stand and lead him into the kitchen. He grabbed a flashlight off the table and pointed it downward over the edge. “Look down there,” he said, pointing at the floor. His foot sat near the leg. A few cautious, dark strands investigated his laces. Ethan nodded. Vernon clicked the light on. Shadows shrank away from the sudden light, but the glare birthed a strong shadow from the tabletop onto his foot. Unable to move up his leg, it contracted and clamped on his foot. Vernon stumbled as his foot slid under the table. His knee straightened and popped; his thigh bumped into the wood. Vernon hissed in pain and tried to draw back, but it wouldn’t let go. He swung the light down his leg. The beam slashed through the shadow, which parted and retreated under the table.

Panting, he stood up straighter, leaning to the left to favor his injured leg. Vernon clicked off the light and turned to Ethan with raised eyebrows. His friend responded with a frown. “Slip on some water or something?”

“What? You didn’t see the shadows moving?”

“All I saw was you waving that light around and trying not to fall.”

A sharp retort nearly escaped his lips before Vernon could bite it back. Trying to convince him, not get in a shouting match. Besides, it probably did look that way from where he’s standing. Maybe he needs to see it for himself. But he didn’t want to put Ethan in any danger. He sighed and ran his gaze around the room. His eyes stopped on the upper cupboard next to the sink. That might do the trick. He absentmindedly wiped his hand on his jeans and stepped across the room, motioning for Ethan to follow.

Darkness oozed back as he opened the cabinet doors. Vernon eyed the deeper shadows behind the other cupboards to the side. Probably not a real threat – there certainly wasn’t enough room to drag Ethan into even if he was alone – but who knew what mischief they could achieve? He flipped the other doors open and looked again. Too much light. He shut all the doors but one. Fainter than before, but they still looked fairly strong. He waved the flashlight at the shelf a couple of times for good measure. That should work. “Stick your hand in there.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see in a minute.”

Ethan shrugged. He stared at the shelf for a moment before reaching in up to his elbow. Vernon flashed the light inside one more time then stepped back. Ethan shook his head with a bemused grin and stood still a moment. He opened his mouth as if to say something; his lips curled into a grimace and he tried to pull his arm back.

“Wait!” Vernon lowered his voice and coughed into his fist. “Just wait a sec.” Ethan shuddered, but slowly reached back inside. “Now take a look in there and tell me what you see.”

Squinting, he leaned forward. Vernon could see his arm trembling as he studied the interior of the cabinet. Whatever he saw in there held his attention quite securely. Aside from his eyes scanning side to side and a periodic twitch of his head, Ethan remained stock still. Vernon held his breath. Is this it? He’s acting like he sees something. I wish I knew what he was thinking. He took a step, then stopped himself. Don’t need to interrupt. Just let him figure it out on his own. Shouldn’t be too long now, anyway. He leaned back on the counter, fidgeting with the flashlight. He suppressed a shudder at the memory of little shadows crawling over his hand. How much longer can he stand that? He flipped the flashlight end over end while he waited. He nearly dropped it when Ethan let out a sharp hiss.

“Something bit me!” Drawing his hand from the cupboard, Ethan leaned in closer, then shook his head and examined his index and middle fingers. Blood welled from three parallel cuts just below the nails. “Looks like I need to get an exterminator out here ASAP.”

“An exterminator? For what?”

“Looks like we’ve got some kind of infestation – mice, maybe rats and whatever was crawling up and down my arm a minute ago.”

“‘Whatever?’” His voice rose with incredulity.

“Yeah. Couldn’t get a good look at it. Not enough light; all I could see was something moving in the shadows.”

Vernon snorted. “Fine. I’ll give you all the light you need.” He flipped the doors open one by one, hard enough they bounced off each other, and shined the flashlight inside for good measure. Cups, bowls, plates and Tupperware gleamed back at them. “See anything in there to call an exterminator for?”

“Vern, calm down. With you making all that racket and flashing that light around, it’s no wonder they ran off.”

“What ran off, Ethan? What? Roaches? Rats? Spiders?” He walked closer and shoved the flashlight around the bottom shelf. “Where are they?”

“Like I said, ran off –”

“Oh, come on! Ran off where? There’s nothing in here, Ethan. You’d still be able to see some bugs, rat poop, something, anything. There aren’t even any spider webs.” Ethan shrugged and scratched his chin, but said nothing. Vernon sighed and nodded. “Fine. Have it your way. I guess I know what I have to do. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” He walked to the doorway into the back room and reached one arm around. He crooked a finger at his friend. “I’ll need you to come over here, though.”

“For what?”

“To make sure I don’t die.”

Ethan gave an exasperated laugh. “Sure thing.” He walked over and leaned on the refrigerator. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Vernon said and flipped off the lights in the back room.

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Part III of Chapter 12 coming soon!

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chapter 12: Fourth Night, Part 1

Ethan Roodschild frowned at his coffee mug. He slouched back on the blue hide-a-bed, his gaze locked on the empty cup, motionless and silent except for periodic murmuring too quiet for Vernon to make out. He’s been doing that for better than half an hour. Why doesn’t he say something? Vernon fidgeted in his recliner, unable to take his eyes from his friend. If he can still be called that.

He had tried to hold back, but Ethan’s arrival had unleashed a torrent of words and bitterness that shocked even Vernon. After Ware’s visit, Vernon passed the remainder of his afternoon pacing through the house. He could feel the fog that had clouded his brain most of the day just waiting for a chance to come back. He found himself standing in the middle of the room staring at walls and windows several times. The only real solution seemed to lay in action. The fog refused to dissipate entirely, but as long as he was doing something, he could hold it at bay. So Vernon got moving. He checked every light and replaced the burnt-out bulbs in the back room. They lit when he flipped the switch. He breathed a sigh of relief and walked to the kitchen, leaving the light on behind him. In the hour and a half before Ethan knocked at the door, Vernon made at least a half-dozen circuits of the house, double- and re-checking bulbs and replacing three others that looked about to go out. He was pondering a fourth when a knock at the door interrupted him. Neither said a word as Vernon opened the door. Ethan stepped inside with a scowl for the damaged wall. His frown deepened as the door wedged shut with a wooden grinding noise. Instead of tearing into his wayward tenant, however, he simply sat on the love seat and watched as Vernon slipped into the kitchen to whip up a cup of instant coffee. He accepted the mug with a nod. Vernon sank into his chair and stared at his hands. What do I say? Where do I even begin? Then Ethan took the decision away with two simple words: “What’s up?”

A deep breath, and Vernon opened his mouth. He wasn’t sure what he intended to say. Perhaps an apology for the door or missing work. Maybe a comment about how his life was falling apart without his wife and daughter – carefully worded, of course. Or he could have just said that he didn’t know what to say. All perfectly good, safe ways to begin what would be a weird tale regardless of how he spun it. But what came out of his mouth was: “You killed my family.” Ethan’s eyebrows shot up at that, but he stayed silent while Vernon jabbed a finger his way and continued. “You knew this was a weird town. Why didn’t you say something? Even if we didn’t have any choice but to come here, some sort of heads up would have been nice. Cheryl and Alexis would still be here, and I wouldn’t be facing this nightmare alone. But no, you had to keep your mouth shut, and we paid the price.” Tears choked his voice. “Especially Cheryl and our little girl.”

“What happened to them?”

Vernon tried to ignore the question, tried to listen to the little voice whispering in his head that answering it would not end well. But his fear and frustration had found an outlet; he had the bit in his teeth and couldn’t stop now. He jumped from his chair and paced in front of Ethan’s seat. The words poured out in a torrent that offered every detail of the past few nights. Vernon told about their weird reception from Jennings Grove’s residents, the horror of losing Alexis and then his wife. He spoke of Cheryl’s final effort to save Ray and the subsequent nights of battles and narrow escapes. He showed every bruise and scrape he had gained in his struggles with the darkness. Finally, as he got to the morning’s fits and dropping Ray off with Kateri, the flood slowed and he forced himself to a stuttering halt. He dropped into his recliner, which answered with an internal sproing and a crack. Vernon ignored it, leaned back and stared at Ethan, waiting for the angry response. Instead, he got ignored. Say something, anything. Vernon glanced out the window. Night had fallen. He wondered what he would tell Ethan when it was time to go. It might solve a lot of problems if you just let him leave. Vernon shook his head. That wasn’t an answer.

“You know, this is a lot to take in,” Ethan said slowly. Vernon turned his gaze back on his boss and leaned forward in his chair. “You spin quite a tale, and you sure seem to believe it. But I got to tell you, I’m just not sure how to take all this.”

His eyes widened, and his jaw dropped. Vernon fell back, which set his seat to rocking. Ethan looked up at the squeaking springs with a small smile, but said nothing. Vernon closed his mouth and pushed on the floor with his feet. His gaze turned to the ceiling, he tried to let the swaying chair relax his nerves even as his mind raced ahead. Ethan almost sounded as though he believed the story, but that seemed rather unlikely. It’s not like this is the most believable story. I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me something like this. Is he playing with me? Or maybe just messing with my head? He chewed his lip. That’s not his style. He’s always been straight with me. Even if he thought I was completely deranged, he wouldn’t do that to me. So what is it? Vernon closed his eyes, tapping his thumbs together. No matter how hard he thought, he couldn’t find an answer that fit. He cracked an eyelid and snuck a glance at Ethan. He peered back with an expression that spoke of nothing but patience and hopeful expectation. He’d seen the same look on his friend’s face hundreds of times before while he waited for something to make sense. Is that it? Vernon sat up slowly. Metal inside the recliner squealed as he rose. Could it be that he wants to believe me, no matter how crazy it sounds? I just need to offer him some kind of… “Proof,” he said aloud. “You need some kind of proof.”

“It would be nice,” Ethan replied dryly.

++++

Part 2 coming soon!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part V

Shadows wrapped around his forearm as his hand closed on the photo album. With daylight all around, the darkness lacked the strength it would in a few hours, but this shelter gave it enough protection that pulling free proved quite difficult. He owed much of his predicament to an awkward position. Cold pressure on his wrist kept him on his tiptoes; he couldn’t rock back on his heels to get more leverage. Great. A stalemate. But for how long? Daylight was dying. The grip on his arm tightened slightly. Already? Vernon twisted as much as he could, looking for a way out. He frowned at the blinds on the window just behind and to his left, then lashed out with his foot. Pain burned his hip, and the kick fell short. Gritting his teeth, he turned until it felt as though his arm might give out. He hopped up and outward and kicked again. The blinds flew away from the glass. Sunlight skittered around the room. Wild bands flashed through the closet for a brief moment, and Vernon fell to the floor with a thud. Something struck the bed with a faint squeak of springs. Colors bloomed in his vision as his head thumped the hardwood. Fighting to clear his vision, he scrambled to his feet with one hand resting on the bed and the other braced against his knee. He looked up at the shadows swimming around the closet, took a deep breath and screamed.

The sound ripped through his throat. It echoed in the room’s confines. Fear and frustration welled up inside, fueling the primal roar. Everything I do, every move I make has to be a fight. I’m so tired of fighting. Don’t I deserve a break? Don’t we deserve some kind of peace, even if it’s just a minute? He screamed again and again, until all he could manage was an aggravated hiss. Finally, his rage spent, Vernon flopped on the bed. Something angular poked his bottom. He let it be for a minute. Breath rasped through a throat that felt as though it had been scraped raw. His hands trembled as he twisted around and yanked the item from underneath him. A large binder covered in gray faux-leather pulled free, the word “Album” stamped across the front in gold script. Vernon traced the letters with one trembling finger. He paused at the “m,” took a deep breath and flipped the cover open. A smiling couple in wedding finery greeted him on the first page. He stared, struggling to remember actually ever being that happy. What happened to us? All he could seem to recall was arguments broken only by chilly silences. Even in the worst of it all, there had been at least a few smiles and laughter. Alexis and Ray had made sure of that. It seemed they could always find joy in their children if not each other. But it seemed as though all those pleasant memories had been swallowed by the darkness in Jennings Grove. Perhaps since it hadn't been able to claim him, this creepy little town was turning him into a small piece of darkness from the inside out. He shook his head. Purely crazy -- but then again, what wasn't these days? He flipped the pages, watching the happiest day of his life rush by in a series of fading snapshots.

His perusal halted at photos in a hospital. A smile ghosted across his lips at the sight of Alexis squalling as doctors looked her over. That first cry had been a great relief. She was quiet at birth, and Vernon hadn't been able to get a good look at her with all the nurses and doctors swarming around mother and newborn. He'd been at least half afraid she had been stillborn. The next picture showed Cheryl, glowing, exhausted and proud with the sleeping baby in her arms. She was so beautiful. How could I forget that? Images flipped past: Alexis coming home. Vernon changing his first diaper with an exaggerated look of disgust on his face. New outfits, new toys and a new home. First words and first steps. And smiles abounding. Then Raymond came along. He cried from the start, Vernon recalled. They had taken fewer pictures with him so far, but the ones plastered in their album showed little in the way of smiles once they got home from the delivery, just exhaustion and -- to his eyes -- a growing frustration. The few grins he saw seemed tense and forced. My fault. I should have tried harder. He wiped tears from his cheeks with an angry swipe of his hand. A small voice said the self recrimination wasn't entirely fair; Cheryl had been difficult far beyond what their circumstances warranted. Surely she bore some of the blame. Shut up! Just shut up. He wiped his nose. I certainly didn't help any. I should have done more. Muttering to himself, Vernon bent back to the photo album. A loud boom reverbrated through the house. Vernon jerked upright. The album fell to the floor. He stood and walked to the front door as flurry of knocks rattled the glass in their panes.

"What?” he snarled, yanking at the door. It stuck in the frame. Grasping the knob in both hands, he pulled harder. The door wrenched free with a squeak and thudded into the wall. “What is it?” he shouted in Travis Ware’s face.

“Calm down, Mr. Hamilton.” The mayor spoke in a low, firm voice that held more than a touch of aggravation. “We need to talk.” He started to step inside. Vernon shot an arm out and grabbed the door frame, barring his way.

“We can talk out here just fine, thank you.”

Travis frowned. “There’s no need to be rude, Mr. Hamilton. Now, if you’ll let me inside...”

“Rude? Rude?” Vernon laughed wildly. “What’s so polite about showing up at my house and trying to knock the door down?” He choked on the laughter, coughed and tried to squash the hysteria threatening to escape. “I--” His voice cracked like a teen’s. Vernon cleared his throat and tried again. “I said we can talk out here. Spill it or go away.”

Lifting one eyebrow, Travis shifted his stance as if to push his way inside. When Vernon made no effort to move, he shrugged and folded his arms. “Very well,” the mayor muttered. He coughed and spoke up: “We need to talk about you shirking your responsibilities and taking advantage of the Williams’ generosity.”

“My what?”

“Don’t act all innocent, Mr. Hamilton. If you’re going to sit here and play hooky from work, the least you could do is take care of your own son instead of foisting him off on Kateri with some lame excuses.”

"Lame excuses?" A giggle escaped his lips. "So now I'm ditching work and abandoning my kids just so I can sit here and relax? Just kickin’ it in Jennings Grove, is that it?” With an effort, he forced a frown. This really isn’t that funny, anyway. “Is that really what you think?” Travis lifted both eyebrows and pursed his lips. “Holy cow, you do, don’t you? You’re just warped enough to believe that.” Vernon laughed and slapped his knee. Not funny. But it’s so messed up, it’s either laugh or cry. And I’ve done enough crying for awhile. Splinters poked his fingers as he gripped the doorframe harder to keep from smacking that indignant, smug face in front of him.

“I don’t see anything funny about this.”

“Of course you don’t,” Vernon broke in. “You’ve lived your whole life in a B-grade horror movie. Everything about this weird, creepy little town of yours is perfectly normal to you.” He straightened and poked Travis in the chest. The mayor’s eyes widened, and his mouth opened and closed as searching for a proper response. Vernon didn’t give him the chance. He picked up pace and volume as he continued. “That’s your problem. This is your whole world, and you refuse to consider anything outside of it. Y’all just say, ‘Get over it and get moving.’ I got news for you, buddy -- normal people don’t work that way. I’m not here goofing off, and I’m not trying to abandon my child or my responsibilities. I’m trying to save whatever’s left of my sanity so I can take care of everything. The way things are going right now, I’m lucky I haven’t killed him.”

“Be that as it may, Kateri--”

“Kateri Williams agreed to watch Ray, and she accepted my reasons for leaving him there, regardless of what you think of them. So how about you butt out and mind your own business?”

“I am mayor--"

“‘Mayor,’ right. I believe the first night here, you used the word ‘unofficial.’ Jennings Grove’s not incorporated, is it? I haven’t seen any city limit signs. That means no real government -- and no real mayors. But even if you were, that doesn’t give you the right to stick your nose into every little thing that goes on around here.” The sound of an engine and crunching gravel reached his ears. Vernon stepped back and swung the door partway shut. “I think it’s time you leave. I’m expecting company.”

Travis’ eyes widened. “At this hour? Are you nuts?”

Vernon looked past him and noted with a sort of dull horror that the sun was well on its way toward the horizon. He kept his face smooth and shrugged. “He can stay the night, then.” A car door slammed in the driveway. “You really need to go.”

“Have it your way, Mr. Hamilton. But we’re going to talk about this later. This isn’t over.”
The mayor tromped down the steps and made his way across the yard. He gave Ethan a wide berth and continued on his way home. “No,” Vernon told his retreating back. “I don’t think it is.”
++++

Part I of Chapter 12 soon!

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part IV

Vernon bit back a retort. He lowered his head to hide the scowl and scuffed his feet until he heard the door shut with a thunk. He lifted his head then and glared at the house for a moment before marching back to his car. His hands vibrated as he dug the keys out of his pocket and dropped into the driver’s seat. “Man up”? “Pull your own weight”? What is wrong with these people? Jennings Grove isn’t a place for anybody who’s sane. Or anyone who has other options. He turned the ignition over and banged his head on the steering wheel a couple of times. There’s got to be a way out of this. Rubbing his forehead, he put the car in gear and turned around. Gravel crunched and popped under his tires as he drove. He was barely aware of his surroundings until he found himself back in the driveway.

He got out of the car and trudged up the steps. Rope still lay on the porch, one end tied between the window door and the other snaking across to the steps. It looked like some monstrous dog had been leashed to the house and tried to tear it down as it made good on its escape. Ethan’s going to have a lot to say about that. He laughed. What’s he going to do? Evict me? He stepped inside, went to the kitchen and retrieved a bread knife. Back on the porch, he paused and watched sunlight play along the long, serrated blade. Cheryl would kill me if she saw me doing this with one of her good knives, he thought as he bent to saw at the thick rope just behind the knot. The strands parted easily enough, but the arm-think cord took time to cut through. Pain lanced through his shoulders by the time he straightened and yanked the rope free. He knuckled his back and set about rolling it between his elbow and palm. He lost himself in the slow rasp-slap of the moving coils until his hand slipped free and the end struck his arm. Vernon blinked and looked out at the yard.

The sun sat noticeably lower in the sky. He shrugged and dumped the coiled rope in the corner of the porch. Turning around, he examined the wall again. It didn’t look as bad without the rope drawing attention to the bulge. A quick tug on the door, and it wedged shut. It refused to latch no matter how hard he tugged, but at least it wouldn’t open the house to the wind. The window was a different matter. Vernon pushed and pulled until the muscles in his arms ached, but it would not shut all the way. A crack about an inch high remained open where the frame twisted outward. Better than nothing. Maybe I can nail some plastic up until I can fix the thing. He stepped back and assayed the structure with a critical eye. She was still a battered old bird. But with the door and window working -- however imperfectly -- it at least looked something like a home instead of a neglected hulk. Vernon swallowed the sudden bile that rose in his throat. A sound that was half whimper and half bitter laugh escaped his lips.

“Home,” he muttered. “Good one.” We had a real home, once. Even with Cheryl griping and nagging me half to death and Alexis annoying the snot out of me, we had a home. He sniffled and shook his head, sending teardrops pattering to the wooden porch. He stumbled blindly into the house.

Still trying to blink back tears, Vernon rammed his forehead against the doorframe leading to the bedroom. He paused inside his room and pursed his lips, trying to decide where to look first. He yanked open a few dresser drawers and found only clothing. A nightstand beside the bed held books and a several nail clippers. Why do we have so many of those things? Shaking his head, he sat on the bed and looked around the room. Still one place he hadn’t tried. Vernon heaved a sigh, rolled across the bed and slid to his feet in front of the closet. The door remained open. Sunlight pouring through the windows drove shadows to the corners. He took a hesitant step forward and peered up at the shelf overhead. Even with the beams lancing in around him, shadows sulked along the shelf like sullen mongrels driven to the last corner of their territory. They shifted and writhed, hiding some objects while revealing others. Three of his wife's shoeboxes jutted in front of him. He wasn't sure if they held photos or scrapbooking supplies or even some fancy footwear she'd never found the right occasion for. There was no telling with Cheryl. The darkness eddied, obscuring the boxes and exposing a pair of roller skates. Vernon reached up and snatched them down before the black tide could wash over them -- or his hands -- again. Scuffed white leather tried to gleam through years of wear. He fingered a long scratch long the arch of the right skate. Cheryl had nearly broken her arm that. It had been their third date, and she stuck her tongue out at him when he asked if her flailing might be due to the fact she didn’t really know how to skate. She’d hit a curb and fell hard to the ground.

Tears fell as he sat down on the bed and stroked the leather shoes. The last time he saw the skates had been just before they moved. Vernon had found them in the bottom of the baby’s closet. Dirt had turned them gray, and dust made the wheels hard to turn, except for one on the heel of the left skate, which had seized entirely. That happened all too often in the last few months. His hand whipped underneath the hardened plastic. The wheel spun freely on its bearings. Vernon remembered waving them in his wife’s face on his way to the trashcan. Why did I throw them away? Fighting, probably, and not speaking to one another. She fished them out and had them fixed. He wanted nothing more right then than to put his arms around Cheryl and hug her until her spine popped. Vernon tossed his head back and sighed. A glance at the closet showed the shifting darkness had uncovered another treasure, the one he’d been looking for. How long had it been sitting there while he played with his departed wife’s skates? Vernon bounced off the bed and lunged for the shelf.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part III

Raymond brought him crashing back with a wail. Vernon straightened and turned toward the bedroom. He stopped, wrinkling his nose at an acrid stink. His gaze rounded the kitchen, seeking the source. He sniffed. It didn’t smell like food gone bad. Had some wiring blown? He spun on one heel, torn between going to comfort the crying baby and staying to track down a possibly dangerous emission. Another circuit revealed no source. Vernon shrugged, stepped past the buzzing microwave and walked to the bedroom. Ray stopped crying the instant he lay against his father’s shoulder. His even, slow breathing a few moments later signaled he had gone to sleep. Vernon hugged him closer and smiled. Figures. Guess I didn’t need that bottle after all. His head snapped up. He dashed back to the kitchen.

A thin trail of smoke arose from the microwave. Inside, baby formula boiled furiously inside a bent, twisted bottle. He punched the door button, halting the time at just over fifteen minutes. How long did I leave it in there? he thought as he grabbed molten plastic. His teeth clenched to hold in the shriek that tried to rip free of his throat. He hurled the bottle to the floor. Steaming liquid sprayed across the tattered linoleum. The bottle deformed further at the impact and slid to a halt underneath the table. Whimpering around burned fingers seeking comfort in his mouth, Vernon went to the living room and sat on the edge of the recliner. I could have set the house on fire and not even known it. A shiver ran up his spine. Rather than subside, it spread down his limbs and grew into tremors that chattered his teeth and bounced Ray around on his shoulder. He stood, hoping to walk some of the energy off. He wobbled and pitched forward, nearly dropping Raymond. The baby jerked awake and started crying. That’s it. I can’t do this. Not today. Once his steps evened enough that he could be sure of his destination, Vernon made his way to the bedroom, fished his keys and wallet off the dresser and walked out onto the porch.

The door refused to close. It banged to an abrupt halt inches from the frame. He figured it would be difficult with the damaged wall, but the gap was wider than it should be. He looked down and saw the rope still tied there. He shook his head and shrugged. What’s the difference? Who’s going to break in out here, anyway? He marched down the steps.

His trembling had decreased in frequency by the time he reached the Toyota, ganging together into periodic spasms that made it difficult to secure the belt in Raymond’s car seat. The baby, now quiet, seemed fascinated with the chattering clasp. Vernon finally got it buckled and collapsed into the driver’s seat with a sigh. He stared at the key as it jerked in his grip a couple of times, then rammed it home before his fingers could twitch again. He noted with relief that the fit seemed to be passing. I don’t need to drive off the road. The engine caught on the first try. He dropped the transmission into gear and headed down the driveway.

Despite his returning control, Vernon drove slowly on the gravel roads of Jennings Grove. His hands spasmed a few times on the trip, sending the station wagon toward the ditch. He jerked the wheel back each time before the tires could cross the boundary between gravel and grassy culvert. Sweat poured off his forehead and soaked his shirt by the time he came to a stop outside the Williams’ brick home and killed the engine. He sat for a moment, twitching and staring at the house. When he felt he had gained a measure of control, he took a deep breath, popped the door open and climbed out. Raymond reached up as the door opened and Vernon took Ray out of the car seat. All the twitching seemed to have stopped aside from a fluttering eyelid, and that petered out as he stepped onto the porch. Vernon sighed in relief. I want her to take him for the day, not run screaming to CPS. He rapped his knuckles on the door. Would anyone out here even go to CPS? I wonder what happens to the kids whose parents don’t make it. He pressed an ear to the door, but couldn’t hear anything inside. Frowning, he knocked again. What would he do if Kateri wasn’t home? Aside from his Camry, there weren’t any cars parked in the driveway. Vernon shook his head. She said she planned to stay home and study. She had to be here. He hammered the door.

Locks snapped back from the other side, halting his hand in midair. The door swung open. Kateri leaned against the jamb with folded arms and a scowl on her face. “What do you want?”

“Uh, I know I said I was going to watch him today --”

“You’re right. You did. And I’ve got work to do. So what do you want?”

“Look, I just can’t do this. I can’t stop twitching. I can’t think straight...”

“Try harder, Mr. Hamilton.” Vernon felt his jaw drop. She gave a tight smile at his expression. “What did you expect me to say? He’s your kid. Much as I like him, I can’t take care of him all the time. You’re going to have to man up and take some responsibility yourself.” She looked him up and down. “Looks like the twitching’s stopped, anyway. Good-bye Mr. Hamilton. If you go to work tomorrow, I’ll see you then.”

She straightened and started to swing the door shut. Vernon hitched Raymond up on his shoulder and slapped the door back open with his free hand. Kateri’s eyebrows rose. She pursed her lips and stood with a fist on her hip.

“Man up? You’ve lived here your whole life.” Anger tightened his voice. “I’ve been here three days. I’ve seen stuff out of horror movies take half my family. I’m losing my mind here, and you’re telling me to man up? I just melted a bottle and nearly burned the house down. It may be Ray next; I’ve lost track of how many times I nearly dropped him this morning. Is that what you want?”

Kateri’s mouth opened. From the look on her face, she planned to rip him a new one. She never got the chance. The shuddering returned in one great paroxysm that shook his entire body. The babysitter dove to her knees and caught Raymond as he slipped out of Vernon’s arms. The baby laughed, and Kateri hugged him tight as she climbed back to her feet. “Alright, Mr. Hamilton. You go home and pull yourself together. I’ll watch Raymond. Call me when you’re ready.” She gave him a hard look. “But you’d better do it quick. I meant what I said, Mr. Hamilton. Jennings Grove isn’t the place for people who won’t pull their own weight.”
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Part IV coming next week!

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