Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chapter 3: First Night, Part II

He started to turn, then jumped to face the other way at a shuddering thump. He jogged around the corner as the sound turned into a steady hum emanating from the window in the back room. He relaxed a little. Why is she running one of those air conditioners? It's not hot out here. Is she trying to waste electricity?

Light in the window flickered, dimmed and died. The air conditioner spooled down and fell silent. Vernon shook his head. A blown fuse? Well, she'll have to deal with it for now. He turned the light away from the window. It pointed south, toward the front porch. Maybe Alexis is hiding up there. He started to run. When I get my hands on her...

Cheryl screamed. Raymond started to wail. He froze, turning his head from porch to window and back. He ventured a half-step toward the front when his wife shrieked again.

Cursing, he spun on one heel and ran back to the steps. The knob turned, but the door wouldn't move when he pushed. He threw his shoulder at it. It gave with a grudging squeal of the hinges. Vernon stumbled into the house. He turned his flashlight toward the TV. In his panic, Vernon thought it appeared as though the darkness resisted the beam before it grudgingly parted to show his wife crouched on the floor, her body curled around the still-screaming baby. Her shirt hung in tatters from her back. She looks like she's been whipped! She sat as he approached, turning to face the light. A long scratch ran down her cheek.

"I w-w-wanted t-to see if the air conditioner worked, but when I turned it on, the lights went out." Her voice rose to a screech. "Something tried to grab Ray!" Her voice cracked. She began to sob hysterically, rocking back and forth.

"Honey, settle down. You probably just jumped when the circuit breaker tripped and nearly dropped him."

Cheryl twisted to expose her ripped shirt and bleeding back. "Does this look like I jumped?"

"It looks like you fell and ripped your shirt when you tried to catch him. Think about it. There's nothing in here to grab the baby. Look, I'll go find the breaker box, and we'll get these lights back on."

His wife sniffed and shook her head. Still rocking with Ray clutched to her breast, she hiccoughed and trembled. It must be the stress. I just hope she gets over this soon. Vernon pursed his lips. What if it's more than stress? We might have to find a doctor for her in the morning. He sighed. Lord only knows where we'd find the money for that. Turning, he played the light along the walls. That box had to be around here somewhere. Had he seen it in the bathroom? He took perhaps a half-dozen steps before his wife started yelling again. He whirled and pointed his light back in the corner.

This time, there was no doubt about it. Shadows visibly retreated from the light, uncoiling tendrils of darkness that fled beyond the beam's edges, dragging yellow and blue cloth with them. He thought he heard a faint growl. His eyes bulged. That was Ray's baby blanket! What is going on here?

He strode back to his wife. "Are you all right?"

Eyes wide, she rose to her knees. One hand clutched the baby, and the other latched onto his pants leg. "You can't leave us again. Promise you won't leave us!"

"After I get back..."

"No!" Her grip tightened, and her words spilled out in a rush. "You've got to stay. You've got the only light. We'll be safe if we stay here until morning, and then we'll get out of here..."

He placed a finger across her lips to halt the babbling. She shushed and looked wildly around her, like a mouse trying to figure out where the cat had gone. He pulled her hand free and pushed her back into a corner. He placed the flashlight on the desk and wedged it in place with the television so that the light made a pool around them. He knelt next to his wife and drew his knees to his chest. Got to stay in the light, he thought. As he squirmed into place, Cheryl's head snapped up and her eyes widened in panic.

"Where's Alexis? Where's my little girl?"

"I don't know," he replied grimly. "I couldn't find her. Unless you want to go out there and look" – she whipped her head side to side in denial – "we're just going to have to hope for the best and wait 'til morning. We won't do her any good if we let whatever's out there get us."

She huddled in closer and continued rocking the baby. Ray eventually quieted and drifted off to sleep. Vernon realized with a shock that Cheryl had done the same after her trembling stilled and her breathing evened. He frowned. How can she sleep with Alexis still out there? Guilt gnawed at him. You're the one who left her out there in the dark. How can you just sit here?

Vernon thumped his head against the wall. His wife snuggled against his arm. He waited several moments, then pushed her upright. She murmured something, but didn't wake. Crouching, he reached out along the wall and tried to stand. Something cold and implacable grabbed his wrist and jerked him off balance. Vernon pulled back, his mouth stretched in a grimace as the grip bit into his flesh. He heaved and fell over as his watch band broke, landing on top of Cheryl, who bolted upright and grabbed his shirt. Raymond kicked and started crying.

"What are you doing? You promised you wouldn't leave!"

"I was going to try to find Alexis..."

"She's fine. You said she'd be fine until we could find her in the morning. You can't leave us here alone!"

I never said that. Vernon bit back the retort. "All right, all right," he said instead, making gentle shushing noises. Cheryl gradually calmed and slid back into fitful sleep. He wrapped his arms around what remained of his family. Trying to ignore the pain in his wrist, he glared at the darkness. What do you want?

Part III coming Monday!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero

Monday, August 27, 2007

Chapter 3: First Night, Part I

"Alexis," Vernon shouted, "time to come inside!"

Head hung low in thought, he walked slowly back up the driveway. Every step kicked up gray dust barely visible in the twilight. Rocks clattered and spun away from his feet. A chill autumn wind blew across the yard. He shivered and hugged himself, hands rubbing the goose bumps growing on bare arms sticking out of his short sleeves. Feels more like November than October. The breeze carried a hint of fresh mowed grass and an even fainter aroma of turned earth, as if someone were tilling a garden. Or digging a grave.

Something about this place just ain't right. Vernon shook his head and kicked a stone, which went rattling down the driveway. Did we make a mistake coming here? He couldn't find anything major out of kilter about Jennings Grove, just a lot of little things that made him uncomfortable. Lord knew any tight-knit community had its share of oddities. Every staff meeting at Franklin Plastics had ended with the workers filing past a small ceramic goat that had become their unofficial mascot and nodding as if to an old friend. Neighborhood Watch gatherings at their old home followed such an exact pattern that anyone who dared interrupt the ritual found himself ostracized for weeks. But this place took weird to an all new level. How many other towns could claim that every last resident attends the local church? Why aren't there any farm animals? There's got to be enough room out here for a small herd or two, but I haven't seen so much as a cat. And what's with the whole home-by-dark thing? They're worse than Alexis when she gets to whining about her nightlight. His head lifted, and he frowned. His daughter had never answered his call.

Vernon stepped off the driveway and angled across the yard for the pecan tree. The mass of branches and leaves had devolved into a hulking lump of shadow that hid the darkening sky behind it. Something creaked from within. He stopped short, suddenly anxious about stepping any closer.

"Alexis?" No answer other than the rhythmic rasping of a rope on the tree branches. He stomped angrily across a few yards of grass and halted again. The blackness under the tree refused to lighten no matter how close he got. No point in going forward if I can't see what I'm doing. "Young lady, if you're not out of there and in the house when I get back, I'm going to pop that hiney of yours." He started back to the house. The breeze grew as he walked. It sighed in his ears, as if trying to form words. The hair on the back of his neck tried to stand. Something's not right. Twisting around, he bellowed at the tree. "Alexis! Get in the house now!"

Still no answer. He ran up the steps and into the house. He glanced to the left and saw Cheryl sitting on their bed, Raymond cradled in her arms. "Do you know where a flashlight is?" he asked.

"I think I saw that big one of yours on the kitchen counter. Why?"

"I gotta go get Alexis," he called as he made his way to the kitchen. "She wouldn't come when I called. I guess she's having too much fun on that swing."

What she called his big flashlight was nearly a hand-held spotlight. He glanced up and down the counter. He found it hiding behind a large box of cereal bearing a tiger on its front. Vernon knocked the cereal aside, snatched his light, pointed it upward and clicked it on. Even with the lights on in the house, the flashlight threatened to blind him. Forgot I put new batteries in it before we moved.

Rubbing his eyes, he stormed out of the kitchen. Glass rattled as he bumped into the front door. Still trying to wipe the spots from his vision, he jumped off the porch and ran to the tree.

"Alexis Nichole, you get in that house right now or so help me…"

She wasn't there.

He slapped a hand down on the plank, stopping it in mid-swing. The wood still felt warm.

"Alexis?" he whispered.

He played the light through the tree. It traveled from branch to branch, struggling to penetrate leaves and shadow. Something rustled above him. He whipped the flashlight up, but found nothing other than limbs. Vernon dropped his hands and head. Where is she?

Wind gusted. Branches creaked overhead with a sound like a menacing chuckle. He swished the light back and forth. The beam sliced through darkness, but seemed reluctant to illuminate anything other than the grass at his feet. He slapped the head of the flashlight. He should have been able to see the house clearly, but his light fell short, offering only the barest hint of bushes underneath bedroom windows that glowed in the twilight.

The breeze dwindled and died, trailing off with a faint sigh. "Bye-bye, Daddy."

Vernon broke into a run, swinging his flashlight in wild arcs that offered glimpses of his new yard. A tree root caught his foot and tripped him. He stumbled, rolled and bounced back to his feet. Skirting a bush, he dashed behind the house and barely turned in time to avoid a barbed wire fence. His foot kicked concrete steps, and he fell against a silver beast hunkering against the fence, light skittering off to one side and landed in the grass to shine on the steps. His body draped itself over cool metal, and his head smacked down with a hollow bong.

Turning over, he slid down the propane tank and sat on the ground, his head banging the side once more. He winced at the bolt of pain that stabbed through his temples. A sob ripped free of his chest as he groped for the flashlight. His fingers brushed metal, pushing the light away. He froze. Something glowed softly just beyond the light splashed on the wall in front of him. It looked like a pair of legs incased in white hose.

"Alexis? Honey, you scared me." A faint titter of laughter floated on the night.

He grabbed the flashlight and turned it toward her. A flurry of movement resolved itself into a crepe myrtle, its pale branches dancing in the breeze.

"Alexis! You stop this right now!"

Laughter answered him once more.
Part II coming Friday!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero

Friday, August 24, 2007

Chapter 2: An Odd Greeting, Part III

A man and woman in their mid-thirties strode by, the husband carrying a girl about Alexis' age. Vernon waved.

"Hey, how you doing? My name's Vern Hamilton. My wife and I just moved in." He turned and waved at the porch. "What's your daughter's name? We've got a little girl about her age."

The man stopped, but kept glancing about as if looking for some escape. His wife answered. "I'm Marilyn Thompson. This is Nick and our daughter Melinda."

"Pleased to meet you," Vern said.

"Likewise," Nick mumbled.

"So, how long have your folks lived here?"

Marilyn smiled. "Actually, Nick was born here. I moved here after we married seven years ago. Of course, his first wife and son were gone by then..." Nick's elbow in her ribs sent her stumbling sideways. "What? Oh. Right." She cleared her throat. "Sorry about that. I just get going and can't stop sometimes." She laughed. "Got to watch that. Don't want to lose track around here..."

Her husband spoke quickly, cutting her off. "I think we've taken enough of Mr. Hamilton's time, dear, and we need to get Melinda home."

"You're certainly not bothering me." Vern chuckled and turned to wave at his car and the lift gate still open in the back. "I've still got to unpack. It's not like I'm all that eager to get back to work."

When he turned back, the couple had already moved on.

He waved at another pair, a black couple walking with a sullen teenage girl in tow. The woman waved back, and her husband nodded in a friendly fashion, but neither halted or even slowed.

An elderly woman in a high-necked blue dress hobbled by. Vernon stepped up beside her and offered his arm.

"Why thank you, young man." She pat the white bun on the back of her head. "It's so nice to see someone with a few manners."

"Where's your husband, ma'am? Don't tell me a young thing like yourself isn't attached."

"Oh, you are a naughty one, aren't you?" She tittered. "Please, call me Pat."

"Alright, just so long as you call me Vern."

"It's a deal, Vern. And to answer your question, my Harold went into the night nearly twenty years ago. These days, I just sit at home and wait for my turn. Probably won't be long now."

"I doubt that." Did she say he went into the night? What kind of expression is that? "Isn't there anyone else around here who could help you?"

"I hate to be a bother. Besides, you know how it is. Most of them have their own families. Would do them any good to see me home and get stuck out here after dark themselves, now would it?"

"That's kind of heartless. It’s not like they could get lost out here, even in the dark. The town ain't that big."

"What kind of nonsense are you spouting?" Pat's head twisted sharply up at him. She adjusted her glasses and squinted. "Oh, that's right. You're new here, aren't you?"

Vernon nodded. "Just got here a little while ago. But what was all that about?"

"Oh, nothing. Just the foolish ramblings of an old woman. I'll probably be drooling on myself next." She stopped in front of a farm house with faded blue paint. "Well, this is my stop. Thank you for the help." She clasped his forearm. "You be careful and hurry on home, young man. I hope I get to see you again." And with that, she scurried into her house. Lights shone in the windows before she shut the door.

Shaking his head, Vernon walked back to his house. He tried to engage the few people he passed in conversation. Those who didn't ignore him outright pointed at the sky and hurried on past. When he reached the mouth of his driveway, he turned. Four more people passed without even glancing his way. That's it. I'm through being polite. When a middle-aged man in a suit and fedora walked by, Vernon snagged his arm and spun him around.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Release me at once. Can't you see how late it is?"

"Look, man, I'm sorry to be rude, but we just moved in and I can't hardly even get anyone to talk to me. I had heard this was a friendly little place, but so far, they're acting like we've got the plague or something. The ones I can get to say anything are crazy or something. I just walked an old woman to her house, and I swear, she's going senile or something. From the way she talked, you'd think it was my last night on Earth."

"You walked Ms. Erickson home?" His expression softened, and he smoothed his graying mustache with a thumb and forefinger. "That was kind of you. She doesn't have anyone to look after her anymore." He paused. "You say you just moved in? That'd make you the new family – the Hamiltons, wasn't it?"

"Yeah." He folded his arms. "Who are you?"

"My name is Travis Ware. I'm sort of the unofficial mayor around here."

He extended a hand. Vernon took it and gave it a quick shake. "Pleased to meet you. Would you like to come meet the family? Cheryl's kind of tired, but I'm sure she'd love to at least say hi, and Alexis always loves meeting new people. Just don't be surprised if she asks to spend the night with you. She's never met a stranger, and she might treat you like a long-lost grandfather or something."

"Really, Mr. Hamilton, I must be going..."

"Oh, come on. It's a Sunday, for crying out loud. I know these small towns like to roll up the streets at sunset, but this is ridiculous. What's going on around here? It's like everyone can't wait to get inside."

"Things in Jennings Grove are...complicated, Mr. Hamilton. I'd be more than happy to speak with you and meet your family in the morning, but right now, I really must get home. I suggest you do the same. It's almost dark, you know." He put a special emphasis on the last. Travis pulled free of his grip and started to leave, then turned back. "Your children don't have any outdoor pets, do they?"

"Huh?" He blinked in surprise. "No. Alexis has been asking for a dog, but we haven't had a chance to get one yet."

"Good." Travis nodded. Vernon frowned and watched him disappear into the deepening murk.
Part I of Chapter 3 coming Monday!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero

Monday, August 20, 2007

Chapter 2: An Odd Greeting, Part II

He threaded his way through the kitchen and into one of the two bedrooms that took up the rest of the house. Alexis' twin bed had been set up and made, the pink comforter with its yellow flowers nearly blinding him as he walked by. A pale nightlight glowed in the wall. A short dresser stood in one corner, and her small, pink table and chairs in another. Boxes covered both.

A doorway led to his room, which was even more cluttered. He couldn't see the bed for all the clothing, and a haphazard stack of boxes nearly obscured the window. Shaking his head, he walked back into the living room and outside.

Ray slept in his mother's arms when Vernon walked out onto the porch. Cheryl, finally covered, had leaned over and was inspecting the brittle square tiles that covered the outside walls. "What kind of siding is this?"

Vernon bent down next to her. "Asbestos," he said after a moment. Running a finger across its surface, he added: "I think it's covered in lead paint."

"What?" she shouted. Raymond stirred, whined and fell back to sleep.

"It's fine," he said, pumping his hands in a calming gesture. "There's no danger as long as you don't start breaking it off." He glanced at the baby. Ray's likely to start crawling soon. "Or try to eat it. We'll need to keep an eye on him."

"Are you sure?" He nodded. She sighed. "Any more surprises?"

"Don't spend any more time than you have to in the bathroom," he said. "The water heater's not venting right. I'll call the landlord tomorrow."

"Wonderful." She shook her head, leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.

He scratched his neck. "Look, Cheryl, it was real nice of your brothers to load our stuff up and move it for us, but don't you think they could have been a little more careful about putting it up? And they ate everything we had in the fridge."

"We've already been over this, Vern, and you're right," she replied sharply. "It was nice of them. They didn't ask for any money, and if they want to take a little food, well, I think…"

What she thought remained a mystery as the bang of an opening door and a babble of voices cut her off. He glanced at his watch, which showed a few minutes past six.

"Church dismissed," he said. "You want to go meet the neighbors?"

"You go ahead, Vern. I'm tired, and I don't want to wake Ray up. I can meet them later."

"It's all right. I understand – neither one of us has gotten much sleep lately. I'll join you in a little bit." He walked down the gravel driveway and glanced over his shoulder. Cheryl had resumed rocking. He walked to the tree where Alexis was still swinging, hair and red skirt flying as she moved through the air. The white hose she refused to take off gleamed in the dying light.

"Hi, Daddy!" she called. "Watch me!"

He stood for a moment, arms folded. "I'm watching, sweetie. You're going high, aren't you?"

"I sure am." She leaned back. Rope creaked as she moved.

Vernon laughed. "Be careful. Make sure you don't throw yourself over the house."

"Oh, Daddy." She gave him one of Cheryl's favorite looks, head cocked to one side and an expression that assured him of his own idiocy. Her lips twitched and broke into a smile. "Push me!"

"Are you sure? Looks to me like you're going too fast already."

"Push me!"

"OK, OK. But just a minute." He walked behind her, ducking to avoid getting brained by the plank. Vernon backed up a step and reached out. His hands gently grasped the sides of the wood and heaved, sending the swing hurtling in its arc.

Alexis squealed and laughed. "Higher!"

He gave her another shove and stepped back. "That's all for now."

"Awww, man. I wanted you to push me more." Her voice grew and fell as she moved toward and away from him.

"I know, sweetie, but Daddy's got to go talk to some people. Tell you what, I'll push you first thing in the morning, OK?"Muonline zero

"OK. Love you!"

"You, too." He blew her a kiss and smiled.

As he moved on, Vernon saw the congregation hadn't wasted any time in dispersing. A few stood silhouetted in the church doorway, but most had moved on. What cars had been in the parking lot were already gone. Some people had already passed his house by the time he reached the road. He watched the people as they headed home. Senior citizens looked to account for a little more than half of Jennings Grove's residents, with younger couples making up the rest. Regardless of age, everyone moved with the same brisk stride while eyeing the setting sun.

Part III coming Friday!


Muonline zero

Friday, August 17, 2007

Chapter 2: An Odd Greeting, Part I

Knuckling his back as he climbed out of the car, Vernon looked at the white house again and grunted. Even with the rebuilt porch and new windows, no amount of cosmetics could hide the fact that this was an old broad.

"The pictures didn't do this place justice. I'll bet it's at least sixty years old. Ethan should be paying us to live here."

His wife barked a laugh, pulled Raymond from his car seat and wrapped him in a yellow-and-blue-striped blanket. The baby's screams dwindled to whimpers that faded to nothing as she hugged him.

"I've got to feed him," she said, bouncing him on her shoulder. "Can you get Alexis and start unloading this stuff?"

"Sure." He opened his daughter's door and pushed the lever on her seatbelt. She squirmed in his grip until he swatted her leg. "Be still."

"I want Mommy," Alexis replied, arms folded and her bottom lip pooched out.

"Not right now. She's got to feed the baby."

"Aww, man." That was one of her new favorite phrases. "Can I go play on the swing?"

"What swing?"

"Over there, silly." She pointed behind the house, to the northwest corner of the property. Two ropes suspended a board from a branch of the huge pecan tree. Even knowing it was there, he found the swing hard to pick out. The tree cast a nearly impenetrable shade in the dying daylight. I bet that thing's great for sitting under in the summer.

"Sure, sweetie. Just don't go anywhere else, and come up to the house if we call you, OK?"

"OK, daddy." She grabbed his leg in a bear hug before tearing across the yard to the tree and calling over her shoulder, "I love you."

"I love you, too."

When he got back to the house with an armload of books from the back of the car, Cheryl was sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, breastfeeding the baby. Ray's blanket draped across her lap.

"Cheryl, cover up or go inside. There's a church next door, for crying out loud."

"When someone complains, I'll cover up. There's no one around, Vern."

"Yeah, I noticed that. Kinda creepy, isn't it?"

"A little. Look, it's going to be dark soon. Could you hurry up and get that stuff out of the car?"

Shaking his head, Vernon walked up the porch. At least Cheryl had propped the door open and turned the lights on. A dingy glass shade overhead cast dirty light across the walls and cobwebs festooning the corners. An ancient air conditioner sat in the side window. Cavemen must have used that thing. Floorboards creaked as he walked through the living room, only slightly muffled by a threadbare, green carpet. He could feel the hardened pad crumbling as he stepped. He wrinkled his nose at the dust and a musty odor that permeated the house, as if it has been shut up too long. Boxes and furniture covered most of the floor, often right in his path. He navigated the obstacle course, sidestepping mountains of cardboard, tables and a dresser before stepping through a curtained doorway on the far side of the room.

Pale blue linoleum squeaked as he stepped into the kitchen. The flooring looked intact, although it mounded into a hump against the left hand wall, just behind the dining table. This room was slightly less cluttered, although several boxes marked "dishes" sat on the counter. Pine cabinets lined the eastern wall on his right, half the doors standing open and exposing empty shelves inside. A pair of long windows showed darkening sky above the double sink. He found a clear spot on the table and set his books down. He opened the refrigerator with some trepidation. The light came on and cold air drifted out. As he suspected, it was empty. As he shut the fridge, its compressor kicked on, and the lights flickered. What kind of wiring do they have in this place?

Shadows leapt out of the open cabinets in time with the pulsating lights, streaming toward him as the power failed, and sulking back when it returned. Vernon shouted and fell back in a chair, which skittered across the floor. One flailing arm knocked the stack of books onto the floor. He stared about wildly, shrinking back from the darkness reaching for him.

Light sputtered once more, then steadied. Shadows became mere puddles of darkness again. He stared, but no matter how hard he looked, they refused to move. He wiped a trembling hand across his eyes and pushed himself to his feet. Don't be stupid. It's just the stress catching up with you. Now get to work.

Turning, he noticed a cracked window between the fridge and stove that looked out onto another room. Puzzled, he walked to the door on the other side of the refrigerator and into the back room.

Ethan had had the back porch enclosed. Their washer and dryer sat in one corner, while a blue sleeper sofa and a desk bearing a television and DVD player occupied the far side. The room's only window held a smaller, newer air conditioner than the one in the living room. A door near the laundry area led into the home's single bathroom.

He stepped inside the bathroom, shoes squeaking on more of the blue linoleum. A soft hiss and fwoomp made him jump. He turned to face a propane water heater in the near corner. Drawing a deep breath, he tried to steady himself. He blew sharply through his nose at the dull odor. It smelled like exhaust fumes he remembered from sitting on one of Houston's six-lane parking lots during rush hour.


Part II coming Monday!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chapter 1: Jennings Grove, Part III

This place looks like a ghost town, Vernon thought and shivered. He pushed a switch on his door handle, and the window hummed as it rolled down.

As they drove around, they finally found where everyone had gone. Jennings Grove Primitive Baptist Church was in session. He stopped in the middle of the road and peered out. The white building with clapboard siding sat on what looked like wooden posts. A cross-topped steeple perched above the front door. Stained-glass windows glowed with various saints and biblical scenes as twilight approached. Trees surrounded the church and its large gravel parking lot, which remained largely free of cars. As he cocked his head out the window, Vernon made out muffled strains of "And Can It Be." A sign out front proclaimed this week's message as "The Outer Darkness, Where there is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth." Well, now isn't that just cheerful?

Something about the grounds looked odd, but it took a moment to figure out what bothered him. Vernon was a city boy; he preferred concrete and steel to meadows and open sky. But since Cheryl liked taking the scenic route when they went on vacation, he'd learned to appreciate rural sites, particularly the architecture. Every old country church he'd ever seen had at least a small cemetery, but this one lacked even a single headstone.

"There it is," Cheryl said, pointing past his ear. He turned his head and saw a driveway just behind them. Nodding, he pushed the lever to reverse and backed up until he could pull into a driveway just past the church.

The winding gravel drive took them to the front of an aging white house. Antique windows peered back at them from a new wooden porch in the front. Paint peeled from the front door and the wooden eaves. A new set of windows faced the church from the western wall, and a new carport covered a spur of the driveway on the eastern side. Ethan wasn't kidding about the renovations, was he? He looked up. Shingles curled from a battered roof. I hope his plans include a new roof. For that matter, I hope that thing will keep the rain out.

The site looked a bit smaller than most of the other tracts in Jennings Grove, but still offered more space than they'd ever had, even at their home in Houston. Lots of room for Alexis to run around. He smiled at the thought. She had never been able to fully understand why she couldn't go outside to play at their last couple of apartments. Even though it hurt to tell her she couldn't go to the neighborhood's filthy park, he liked the fact she couldn't grasp her parents' concern about drug dealers, gangs and dirty needles. She can stay innocent out here. Toward the back of the yard, between the house and church, stood the biggest pecan tree he'd ever seen. She'd love to climb that thing, I bet. Someone had mowed recently, exposing a set of deep ruts across the yard.

"So," he said, turning to his wife. "What do you think?"

"I think I'm going to have a lot of cleaning to do."

"Probably." He pointed to the ruts. "Don't you think Hank and George could have been a little more careful with their trailer? Those are going to take forever to even out."

"So what? Look at the place. Do you think anyone's going to notice?"

"Ethan has done a lot for us here. The least we could do is take care of the place. I'd think your brothers would appreciate that."

"My brothers moved nearly everything we own up here and into that house themselves. They did it for free. They had to take off work and pay for the gas all the way up here and back down to Houston. I'd think you would be a little more appreciative of what they've done and not worry about a couple of tire tracks in the yard."

"You're right, Cheryl. I'm sorry." He took a deep breath. "Look, I don't want to fight anymore, OK? It may not be the greatest place in the world, but it's a sight better than what we had. Let's try to make the most of it."

"Alright." She glanced at the house and, for the first time in months, his wife smiled. "Let's go inside."

Vernon opened the door and climbed out of the car. They were finally home.


Part I of Chapter 2 coming Friday!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero

Friday, August 10, 2007

Chapter 1: Jennings Grove, Part II

Vernon dropped the transmission into drive and eased back out on the asphalt. Black lines showed the path of his car's wild ride. Waiting at the intersection for a couple of battered pickups to go by, he offered a silent prayer of thanks that no one had been hurt. This move was hard enough on everyone as it was; he didn't need to add injuries to the stress.

He had been quite happy in his previous job at a small plastics company on the Texas Gulf Coast. Everyone in the shop worked hard, often performing the duties of two or three people because the owner didn't want the expense of adding to his headcount. Vernon didn't mind. It made for long hours but decent pay and a fair measure of job security. Or so he thought until Herb Franklin announced he was bankrupt and the company was shutting its doors for good. They found out later he had also moved to South America with his secretary and all the money he could squeeze out of his business, including the pension fund.

In the last six months, the Hamilton family had been forced to sell their home and move into a two-bedroom rat-hole of an apartment while Vernon looked for another job and his wife bore their second child. With his experience, Houston should have been an easy place to land something. But, as Vernon gradually discovered, Franklin was not the most ethical of businessmen. Prospective employers took one look at his resume and moved on to the next candidate. The only consolation, small though it might be, was that his former coworkers were having similar difficulties. A few old friends in the industry told him there was a general suspicion in the area that those with his level of seniority had been in on Franklin's shady dealings. His current financial difficulties just meant he got double crossed.

As their money dwindled, they moved to a smaller rat hole and finally an efficiency that even rats turned their noses up at. Vernon started to wonder if their next home might be under an overpass when he got the call from Ethan Roodschild, an old supervisor who had left the company a couple of years before. Something wasn't right about Franklin Plastics, he'd said before moving near the Oklahoma border to work at a place called Paris Plastics, Inc. They made little kiddie swimming pools and fake Christmas trees. Ethan had tried to get Vernon to come with him then, but he refused. How could he leave Houston, especially for a podunk little town on the backside of nowhere?

Ethan's most recent call came as a pleasant surprise.

"I heard what happened to the company and the pension," he said. "Is there any hope they'll get him back in this country to face charges?"

"Not much. Apparently extradition's a real bear down there."

"That's a shame." There was a pause, and Vernon could hear him clearing his throat. "Look, I know you're having a hard time finding work..."

"Try impossible."

"I know. That's unfair, but that's why I tried to get you to leave a couple of years ago."

"Yeah. I'm starting wish I had listened."

"Then this just might be your lucky day. We've got a couple of openings up here. I could use a good man like you on my crew. The pay's not as much as you're used to, but the cost of living is a lot lower up here," Ethan had said. "Are you interested?"

Not only was he interested, but Vernon agreed to it on the spot. He'd start in three weeks, at the beginning of October when the monthly lease on their current place ran out. Cheryl wasn't thrilled he had made the decision without discussing it with her, but she agreed they had to leave. It was only a matter of time before one of the gunshots they routinely heard at night put a bullet through their window. Ethan even had a home for them, an old, two-bedroom farmhouse he had purchased and started remodeling as an investment. He'd let them live there rent-free for six months, and they could lease it for only three hundred bucks a month after that. He even waived the deposit and had the utilities turned on. Judging from the photos he sent, the house wasn't much, but at least they had managed to take a step in the right direction.

Driving down this county road, Vernon listened to gravel crunching under his tires, smelled the dust his car kicked up and glanced sideways at his wife in the passenger seat. She chewed on a lock of her curly auburn hair, a sure sign of anxiety. The stress of the last half-year had taken its toll. A tall woman, she had always been thin and pale, but these days, Cheryl hovered on the verge of gaunt. Food had sometimes been hard to come by in the last few months, but he'd tried to make sure she and Alexis never went hungry. They certainly couldn't afford baby formula, so Cheryl had to breastfeed Ray. She ate enough to keep him healthy, but anxiety kept her from putting on any weight. Her usually penetrating stare had become a hollow-eyed gaze. She had her feet up on her seat, hugging her knees close to her chest as she hunched away from the screaming behind her.

I probably don't look any better, he thought. He had lost quite a bit of weight himself, but unlike his wife, his short, stocky frame had plenty to spare.

He reached over and patted her knee. "It'll be all right," he said softly. She shot a withering look at him. "Look, I'm sorry. I overreacted. You're right to be mad, and I'm a big, stupid jerk." Her face relaxed slightly, and she turned her frown back out the window. How long has it been since I've seen her smile?

They crested a hill and got their first look at their new home.

The community sat on the Red River, a motley collection of a few dozen houses on three hundred twenty acres tucked away in the northernmost point of Lamar County. He spotted some new construction, but most of it looked older, including a few that might even be from the 1800s. The gravel road circled around the community, passing an old church at the point nearest the Red River.

Vernon followed the looping road to the right, driving slowly as he looked for their house. Each residence had a large yard, several acres apiece. Alexis'll love that, he thought. Many sported tricycles, swing sets and other signs of children. He saw gardens and even a few small-scale farms. Most homes had darkened sheds or barns, and he spied several tractors and riding lawnmowers. Cars and pickups sat in driveways, under carports and, presumably, inside the garages they passed. Lawn furniture sat ready to provide outdoor comfort. Porch swings swayed in the wind. Leaves rustled and grass bent. Jennings Grove sported all the signs of life, but no life itself. Light glowed in a few windows, but no shadows moved inside. No dogs barked. No cows lowed or horses neighed. He couldn't find any cats sauntering from yard to yard or coyotes howling at the darkening sky. Even birds seemed to have abandoned the small town. So had the people.


Part III coming Monday!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero

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!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero

Friday, August 3, 2007

Prologue: Bought with Blood, Part III

At Matthew's left, Martha stood and peered into the night. "Where is Jonathan? He should have been back by now."

"He's fine. He's probably off sulking somewhere. Leave him be. A night out there alone might do him some good."

She turned. "You can be a cruel, heartless man sometimes. That is your own flesh and blood out there. He could be hurt or lying in the river, for all you know. I'm going to go find my son." She stepped out of the firelight and called back over her shoulder. "And get my brush."

"Have it your way," he muttered and waved dismissively. I don't know why she can't listen to reason. He jabbed the fire with a stick.

A muffled scream from the direction of the wagon brought him to his feet. Abigail moaned and rolled over in her blanket. A quick check showed she was still asleep.

"Stay here, honey," he whispered and grabbed a burning stick. "I'll go get Mommy."

Flames flickered above his head as he waved the torch back and forth. It illuminated the ground a few feet around him, but not as well as he expected, as if the night fought banishment. Shaking his head, Matthew dashed to the wagon.

Martha wasn't there. Neither were the horses. The ropes ended in a frayed mess a few feet from the knots still tied to the wagon. He hurried to the other side, still with no sign. His foot kicked something that rattled. Matthew bent down and picked up a battered pot. His wife's hairbrush lay inside. Where is she? Where's Jonathan?

He spun in a circle and started north. His path took him through camp. As he passed his daughter, Matthew slowed and halted. Martha and Jonathon were missing, perhaps injured. He needed to find them. But could he afford to leave his little girl all alone? Coyotes and Lord only knew what else stalked these lands, and most hadn't learned to be scared of men yet. His head swiveled from the night to Abigail and back. What do I do? Weeping, he tossed the branch back on the fire and collapsed on the ground beside it. I've got to keep her safe, if nothing else.

Of course, he had failed at that, as well...

Sunlight fell across his face. Matthew blinked several times, scrubbed a hand across his face and stood. He moved slowly, as if in a trance, his head moving back and forth as he scanned the ground. No trace of his family remained, not even Abigail's doll. He shuffled to the wagon outside the grove. It remained intact, but the canvas cover had been shredded and their belongings scattered. He picked among the ripped clothing like a buzzard moving through a battlefield. Shirts and pants that had survived the onslaught went into a small bundle in his arms, along with a few that looked repairable. Martha would kill me if she saw this mess. Fresh tears flowed down his cheeks.

His gathering complete, Matthew tied the clothing in the remains of one of his wife's dresses and faced south. It would take him a couple of days to walk to Paris, but he'd best get started now. Hopefully I'll be far away from this place come nightfall. Matthew turned back for one last look at the pecan grove. The Indians were right. We should have stayed away. From this vantage point, the place where they had camped looked like a perfect spot for a house. Martha was right; it really is a pretty place. But who could live here or lay claim to it?

His expression hardened. He could hear his wife chiding him for giving up so easily. I have laid claim to it. This is my land. How much blood had been spilt for this plot of earth? He'd shot and stabbed scores of Mexicans in battle for the right to come here. His family was gone, swallowed into the night that lived in this place. If it wasn't his, then by God, it wasn't anyone's. There's no bodies, he thought abruptly. Who's to say they're really dead? Perhaps if the night took them, it can give them back. I'll never find a way if I leave. I made it through one night; I can make it through another.

Setting his bundle on the back of the wagon, Matthew grabbed an ax. He walked among the trees and cut marks into the ones that would need to come down to make room for the house. He chose carefully. Martha didn't want them all removed. About noon, he stopped and collected a huge mound of firewood for the coming night. He started the fire well before sunset and lay down to sleep.

In the morning, Matthew Jennings would begin to build his new home.


Part I of Chapter 1 coming Monday!

Labels: Muonline zero Muonline zero