Monday, December 17, 2007

Chapter 7: Back to Work, Part I

A loud bang reverberated across the room. Vernon jumped. His eyes flew open, and he grabbed the arms of the recliner. He tried to stand, but something had slithered around his legs and held them together. Feet tugging in opposite directions, he writhed franticly in the chair in an unsuccessful attempt to free himself. The banging intensified. It finally got me. It… He looked down to find the blanket had wrapped around his waist and legs. Chuckling, he untangled himself, lowered the footrest and stood. A loud wail joined the knocking on the other side of the front door.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," Vernon muttered as he shuffled across the room. He yawned, stretched and pulled the door open.

Kateri Williams stood on the porch, Ray on one hip and her free arm raised to knock again. She dropped the hand and leaned sideways to pick the blue diaper bag up off the porch. She hitched the infant into the crook of her elbow and stepped past Vernon into the living room. He shut the door and turned to face the babysitter.

"I thought you would like to spend some time with your son before work," Kateri said, handing Ray over. The baby smiled and waved his arms in excitement as Vernon took him.

"Hey there, little man," he said softly. Resting on his forearm, Ray held Vernon's finger and giggled. He bounced the baby. "He feels heavier."

"That little boy loves to eat." Kateri laughed. "I barely got time to keep the bottles washed."

"That's good. I was worried about how he'd take the switch to the bottle. Cheryl never…" Voice cracking, he broke off and scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. He drew a long, ragged breath and tried to smile. "Sorry 'bout that."

"It's OK, Mr. Hamilton. We get that a lot around here." She rummaged in the diaper bag and pulled out a capped bottle. Formula sloshed in the bottom quarter. "He didn't get to finish eating this morning. Would you like to feed him?"

Vernon took the bottle, pulled the lid off and rubbed the nipple across the baby's lips. Ray hesitated a moment, then latched on, sucking greedily until nothing was left but air. Even then, Vernon had to yank the bottle free to burp Raymond over his shoulder. He lowered the infant and laid him across his arm once more. Raymond yawned, stretched his little arms and snuggled in to his father's chest. His eyes lowered, bounced open and shut again. The baby jerked once, then stilled. Within a few moments, he started snoring. Vernon laughed and wiped more tears from his face.

Kateri smiled. "He hasn't slept much in the last couple of days. Guess he missed you."

"I've missed him, too." He looked up. "But I'm glad he's had you to look after him. These last couple of days have been absolutely nuts. I don't know how long it's going to take to get used to this place."

"It'll probably take awhile, Mr. Hamilton." She stood and gently took Raymond in her arms. "Think you can be at our house around 5:30 to pick him up?"

Rising from his chair, Vernon scratched his head. "Sure, but I thought you'd be watching him for a few more days. I mean, I don't think I can – "

"Look, Mr. Hamilton, I know you've been through a lot, and I'm glad to help, but I've got classes and schoolwork to catch up on. He's your kid; you're going to have to start taking care of him." As he stood there, stuttering for some kind of response, Kateri turned and walked out of the house with the still-sleeping baby.

Vernon stared at the door for a moment, then shook his head and went into the kitchen. He sat at the table and absentmindedly munched a bowl of sugar-coated flakes. Would they return tonight? He'd been sure Cheryl was about to speak before Ware's untimely call drove her and Alexis away. What if they didn't come back? What if that was his only chance? His fist pounded on the table; his spoon rattled against the plastic bowl and milk sloshed over the rim. Country folk had a reputation for friendliness and neighborly concern; he'd never figured that meant they were busybodies. Why couldn't Ware just mind his own business and keep his nose out of it? He closed his eyes and saw the ghostly figures of his wife and daughter reaching out for him once again. Tears trickled down his cheeks. I should have just ignored the phone gone out to join them. I should have... The thought trailed off as the image of Raymond reaching for him arose. He opened his eyes and wiped the tears away. Travis Ware had been right about that much, anyway – he still had a son to take care of. Ray was his responsibility. Could Vernon abandon him even to rejoin Cheryl and Alexis? People always want to adopt babies.

"Shut up," Vernon growled. He threw the bowl across the room into the sink. Milk and cereal splashed across the counter, floor and window. He stared at the brown-flecked, white splatter for a moment, then shrugged and went to the bathroom to get ready to work. Plenty of time to clean it up when he got home.

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Part II of Chapter 7 coming Friday!


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