Monday, September 10, 2007

Chapter 4: A Welcome, Part I

They came for him just after dawn, once the sun made it safe again.

Travis Ware and a group of men, all still dressed in their Sunday finest, poured in through the open back door. They stood in silence, staring at Vernon, who sat with the sleeping infant in one hand and the weakening flashlight clutched in the other. He pivoted the light toward any shadows that caught his eye.

"There, I told you at least one of them would make it," Travis said. "Congratulations, Mr. Hamilton. You survived your first night in Jennings Grove. Not many people do."

One of the men – the one he had seen with the sullen teenage daughter – stepped forward, hand extended. Vernon remained motionless until the man touched him. He swung the flashlight into his nose, which collapsed with a crunch, and lifted the light above his head once more. The man clutched his ruined nose with one hand and balled the other into a fist. Travis gripped his arm.

"Now, now, Marvin, that's no way to welcome a new neighbor. I believe a little understanding is in order. Remember the state we found you in after your first night?" Marvin nodded and stepped back. Travis knelt beside Vernon. "Mr. Hamilton, you can put that down. It's daylight. There's nothing to harm you now."

His thumb pushed the flashlight's rubber button. The waning light clicked off and he slowly lowered it to the floor, blinking as he gazed at the men gathered around him.

"How? Why?" his voice trailed off, but Travis seemed to understand.

"Everyone asks that, but I doubt anyone really knows. Myself, I think this is just one of those places in the world where man hasn't tamed the darkness." He shrugged. "The night has always been a source of terror. The Bible speaks of 'outer darkness;' Shakespeare mentioned a 'wild night.' Here, we see the truth of it."

"But why do you stay?"

"Why?" He seemed genuinely shocked. "Because it's home. Where else would we go?"

Vernon nodded. He looked down at the boy sleeping in his arms. Home? Are these people absolutely bonkers? How could they expect he would even think of making a home in this place that had taken everything from him? Unless... "Will I…" He swallowed. "Will I ever see my wife and daughter again?"

"Probably, but it's best to ignore them." Travis stood and flapped his hand at the men, who started filing toward the door. "Look, Mr. Hamilton, you need to get cleaned up and get ready for work. This is your first day on the job; you won't want to be late."

He nearly dropped Ray in his shock. "Get ready for work? Are you nuts? I just spent a night straight out of hell, half my family is gone, and you think I'm going to work?" He clutched the baby to his chest, shaking his head. "I'm not in any shape to go in today. Even if I stay – and there's no guarantee of that – I just need to stay here and take care of my son."

“Where would you go should you decide to leave?” Vernon opened his mouth, but Travis didn’t wait for an answer. "I'm sorry for your loss, Mr. Hamilton, but this is no time to sulk at home. I understand your finances are shaky at best. We can help some until your first paycheck, but not if you're not going to help yourself." He sighed. "And we don’t want to attract attention here.”

“A woman and little girl are missing. Do you really think the cops aren’t going to stick their noses out here? How on Earth…”

“We will deal with it later, after you’ve settled in.” Vernon’s incredulity must have painted itself on his face; Travis caught one look of his expression and smiled sadly. “Trust me, Mr. Hamilton. It’s not that hard. We have a great deal of practice.”

Vernon’s protest died in his throat. His shoulders slumped, and he felt his facial muscles sag. A hiccough escaped, followed by another. Eyes closed, he shook his head and scrubbed tears from his cheeks. I can’t argue anymore. No matter what he said, Ware had an answer. And what was the point? He’d lost nearly everything. It’s all my fault. He didn’t even try to deny it. The decision to take this job and accept Ethan’s invitation to move into this house had been his and no other. How many times had Cheryl reminded him of that fact in the last few weeks? Every decision I’ve made has led to disaster – to this. He looked up at Travis Ware, who stood with arms folded while he stared thoughtfully out the window. He looked so…confident. He seems to know what he’s doing. How often has he been through this? The “mayor,” as he liked to call himself, had given him reason to stay – perhaps unwittingly – and if they were going to remain, it might be nice to let someone who knew the town make the decisions for a while. He can’t do any worse than I’ve done.

“Fine,” he said. “I give up. You’re right.” Ray squirmed in his grasp as he stood and knuckled his back. “But what about the baby? I can’t leave him here by himself.”

“Don’t worry about that, Mr. Hamilton. It’s already been taken care of.” He ushered all the men out and turned to shut the door. "We’ll have an official celebration today when you get home – it's so seldom we get people who can live here – but I want to be the first to welcome you to Jennings Grove."


There will be no update Friday; Part II is coming Monday!

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