Monday, August 6, 2007

Chapter 1: Jennings Grove, Part I

Vernon's grip tightened on the steering wheel. Vinyl creaked in protest. He tried to ignore the sound, with better success than his attempts to block out his wife's nagging, infant son's screaming and the CD of children's songs playing on the stereo for the eleventh time. He gunned the engine. The Camry lurched and halted as he stomped on the brake while a pair of racing Mustangs filled the hole he had seen. Traffic streamed by without a break. The left blinker continued its maddening, steady click.

"Come on, come on," he muttered, jerking on the transmission lever.

"That won't make the cars go by any faster, Vern," Cheryl said.

"Just, please, hush. I'm trying to concentrate on driving here."

Finally, he saw the gap he needed. Traffic had moved ahead of a slow-moving eighteen-wheeler hauling gravel. "Hang on."

The green station wagon whipped across the divided highway, its laden rear end fishtailing slightly as it turned.

"Whee, Daddy!" Alexis yelled from her seat in the back.

Heading west on Farm-to-Market Road 197, Vernon kept the speedometer pegged at fifty. The sun hung just above the horizon, so low that no matter how he positioned the visor, it remained in his eyes. He had to squint through the bug-splattered windshield to make anything out. The narrow two-lane highway twisted like a snarled extension cord. Every time he tried to accelerate out of one curve, he had to slow down for another. Welcome to the country, he thought.

"Vern, could you speed up? My grandmother drives faster than you. I'd like to get out of this car today."

Gritting his teeth, his right foot pushed down on the accelerator. Trees and an occasional house slipped by in an increasing blur. Rubber squealed as he passed through a bend in the road, crossing into the left lane before the highway straightened out. An old blue Ford tractor chugged along the road in front of them. Ignoring the double yellow line to his left, Vern jerked the wheel and passed the tractor without slowing. He slipped back into the right lane.

"Vern, slow down!" Cheryl yelled as he slalomed through yet another curve.

He bit his tongue and just stopped himself from stomping on the brake pedal, although he did tap it hard enough that his wife's seatbelt locked as the Camry lurched to a more moderate speed. Alexis laughed and clapped her hands. Raymond's screams continued unabated.

"Five minutes ago, you were telling me to go faster," he muttered.

"What was that?"

"Nothing." He sighed and ran a hand across his head. His fingers traveled halfway down the back of his skull before encountering a fringe of brown hair. "Can't you do anything about Ray?"

"He's hungry, and he wants out of his car seat. If you'll pull over, I can feed him…"

"No. We've been in this stupid car for seven hours already, and we've stopped five times. We're nearly there; he can just wait."

An exasperated glottal hiss escaped from the back of Cheryl's throat, and she turned up the volume on the radio. "Down by the Station" was starting again. Vernon just knew little puffer bellies all in a row would haunt his every waking moment for the next week. The sacrifice was worth it, he guessed; Alexis had remained fairly quiet the whole way, aside from complaining of hunger or a need to "go potty." Given the four-year-old's usual demeanor on road trips, that qualified as a minor miracle.

"Chug, chug, toot, toot, here we go!" his daughter belted, off-key as usual. Any other time, it would be cute. Now, it was just irritating. Vern turned the radio on. Static assaulted his ears, and he hit the scan button. Snippets of country music and tractor commercials joined the attack. Isn't there a decent rock station around here anywhere?

"Daddy, I want kid songs!"

"Honey, I want to hear the radio for a while. You can listen to your kid songs later when you go to the store with Mommy."

"But I want it now!" She started to cry.

"Now, Vern, turn the CD back on. There's no need for this."

"Everybody, just shut up!" he yelled. "I've had enough of your griping and your whining." Man, what I wouldn't give right now to wake up in the morning and be single again.

He punched the eject button on the stereo. He grabbed the offending disc and flung it to the back of the car like a Frisbee. Sunlight glinted off the golden circle as it bounced off the windows and clattered to rest somewhere amid the cardboard boxes. Alexis' cry rose to a wail, which inspired her brother to even greater vocal feats. Vernon sniffed. Ray had dirtied his diaper. Figures, he thought. Cheryl folded her arms and glared at him through her oval-framed glasses. His right foot slowly pressed down; he ground his teeth as the car picked up speed once more, its four-cylinder engine whining like a sewing machine.

A metal building flashed by in a blur; he barely had time to register the words "Chicota Volunteer Fire Department." A sign pointing to County Road 36850 and Jennings Grove zipped past just as fast. Missed it!

This time, he did slam on the brakes – which promptly locked up.

The station wagon, its rear loaded down with boxes, swerved and slid across the road. Trees spun past the windshield like an autumnal kaleidoscope. The Camry whipped around and skidded into a shallow ditch on the opposite side of the highway. It tilted to the right before dropping back onto all four wheels amid a chorus of protesting squeaks from the suspension. Inside, the car was deathly quiet. Then everyone started yelling at once.

Raymond, of course, resumed his screaming. He could barely hear Alexis saying, "That was cool, Daddy! I want to do it again!"

"Vernon Edward Hamilton, what on earth were you thinking?" Cheryl shouted. "You could have killed all of us!"

He slowly relaxed his tight grip from the steering wheel, put the transmission into park and rubbed his eyes with trembling hands. He sat there, breathing in ragged gasps for several minutes. He turned to his daughter.

"Sweetie, please hush." He leveled a warning finger at his wife. "Nobody's dead. No one's even hurt. The car's running fine. Yeah, it was stupid, but until something actually happens, keep your comments to yourself."

She folded her arms and dropped back in her seat. "Oh, I'm sorry, honey," she said with a bright smile and a syrupy tone. "You're right. That wonderful driving, the best I've ever seen. I don't know what got into me. Can we jump a creek next?"

"Drop it," he snapped. He glanced at the dashboard clock and sighed. "Look, it's nearly six. These people will be getting out of church soon. Let's get home and try to calm down so we don't make a bad impression on our new neighbors. We'll talk about this later." Cheryl's nod promised a great deal of discussion.


Part II coming Friday!

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At August 9, 2007 8:14 PM , Blogger Dale L. Murphy said...

Great pacing Jeff. I can't wait to read some more. Having read the original short story this is based on I can't wait to how this whole thing unfolds.

~Dale1.11 b diablo 2 no cd  

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