Friday, September 21, 2007

Chapter 4: A Welcome, Part III

Will I ever see my wife and daughter again? Vernon had asked, not daring to hope it might be possible. The night had taken them. Why would it give them back? Better to hear they were gone for good so he could begin to move on. But against all expectations, Travis had told him it was not only possible, it was even likely. Never before had a word sounded so beautiful as “probably” did at that moment. Wasn’t there a “but” attached to it? He attacked plaque with his toothbrush and shoved the question aside. Doesn’t matter. If I can see them again, I need to stay. If I can see them...

“Then I haven’t really lost them,” he muttered and wiped the steam-fogged mirror clear. He spat out the last of the toothpaste, rinsed his mouth out and shut off the water. Turning, he peeled off his clothing, pushed the dingy plastic curtain aside and turned on the shower, careful to get the cold water going first.

He made the shower a brusque affair, scrubbing roughly with the soap-laden rag before lathering his hair and rinsing. Despite his rush, fumes from the water heater had his head hurting by the time he finished. He wrapped the towel around his waist and went into the bedroom to get dressed.

Raymond was awake and laying on his back when Vernon walked in. The baby smiled and reached for him with fingers clenching and unclenching. He smiled back and let Ray hold one of his fingers for a moment.

“Just a minute, buddy, OK?” he said softly, disengaged himself and plucked a shirt off the bed. Hopelessly wrinkled, and he didn’t think he could bear to try to iron anything, even if he knew where it was. He tossed it aside. Three more joined it before he found a serviceable polo shirt. Pants were easier to come by; he only went through two pair to find a decent set of black jeans. His undershirts, underwear and socks lay piled against the headboard. Vernon unwrapped the towel and threw it on top of boxes against the far wall and dressed in a hurry. He had just finished tucking in his shirt when someone knocked on the front door.

Vernon balanced Ray in the crook of his right elbow and opened the door. Fedora perched on his head, Travis stood on the porch next to a black teenage girl with her hair in long, thin braids and a dark blue diaper bag slung over one shoulder. Both had dressed in nearly identical outfits – white button-down shirts and jeans, although the teen’s fashionably ripped denim contrasted next to the mayor’s fresh, stiff pants. She smiled so warmly at the three-month-old baby that it took Vernon a moment to realize she was Marvin’s brooding daughter. She clapped her hands and reached for the infant. Vernon handed him over and gestured for the pair to come inside.

“Thank you, Mr. Hamilton,” Travis said. He doffed his hat as he crossed the threshold.

They walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. The teen ignored the adults. She set the diaper bag on the floor and Raymond in her lap and started blowing raspberries and babbling at the baby.

“Kateri is quite good with children,” Travis said. “She has helped care for children in Jennings Grove for several years now, but she’s always preferred the babies. She hasn’t had a chance since the tragic incident with the Eisfeldts last year. When I told her about yours, she nearly dragged me over here.” He chuckled.

“I’m glad she likes kids,” Vernon said. He lowered his voice and leaned forward. “But shouldn’t she be in school? She can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen…”

“I’m nineteen, Mr. Hamilton.” Kateri hadn’t taken her eyes off the baby, but a stern note entered her syrupy tone. “I’m studying child development. I take classes in the afternoon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at PJC. I have training in CPR for adults and children from the Red Cross.” She turned her head toward him, irritation written on her features. “That good enough for you?”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks.” She nodded and returned her attention to Ray.

Travis stood and pulled on Vernon’s shirt. The mayor led him back into the living room, letting the green curtain fall back into place in the kitchen doorway before he spoke again. “I feel I must apologize for Kateri, Mr. Hamilton. She’s actually a sweet girl, but she’s always been touchy about her age.” He ran a hand through his gray hair and laughed. “She hasn’t reached the point yet where appearing younger than her years is an asset.”

“It’s OK.” He lapsed into silence, chewing on his lip as he stared out the door.

“I believe it’s past time for you to go to work.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Right.” Vernon patted his pockets, which were empty. He turned in a slow circle, glancing around the room. Travis’ hand on his arm stopped him.

“Just a moment.” He went back into the kitchen and emerged a moment later carrying Vernon’s wallet, keys and a small brown bag. “I spotted your things on the counter earlier. I thought you might have forgotten where you put them after last night.” He hefted the bag. “Mrs. Williams – Kateri’s mother – packed a lunch for you.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, taking the proffered items. He stuffed the wallet in his back pocket and headed for the door.

Travis followed him out and shook his hand. Vernon felt a lump between their palms. After they broke contact, he found himself holding a sizable wad of money. The outside bill showed half of Andrew Jackson’s profile. “Have a good day, Mr. Hamilton. Don’t worry about a thing here; we’ll take care of it. And I know I told you we’re planning a celebration when you get home, but try to at least act a little surprised.” He winked and stepped back into the house.

Dropping himself into the driver’s seat, Vernon started the car and drove slowly down the driveway, watching the swing moving in a gentle breeze. That thing’s going to have to come down. He wiped tears from his cheeks. He kept his car at a crawl as he drove down the county road and toward FM 197. He switched on the left turn indicator, and after a brief pause at the stop sign, started out on the highway.

A flash of red and a blaring horn were all that kept him from running straight into the pickup barreling down the road. A middle finger waved at him from the truck’s rear window as he turned onto the highway. The Camry moved down the road at a steady forty miles per hour until he reached US 271. He drove into Paris at fifty-five, ignoring the cars blasting by him. He could almost hear his wife’s voice urging him to pick it up. The speed limit was seventy, for crying out loud. Vernon kept the accelerator where it was. Anything more required more than his exhausted brain and jangled nerves could handle.

Cheryl, what am I going to do without you?


Chapter 5 coming Monday!

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At September 21, 2007 11:20 AM , Blogger Bret Jordan said...

It sounds like Mr. Hamilton is in for a hard day at work. Keep up the great story, Jeff!cheats to carom 3d  

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