Friday, September 28, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part II

“Vern! Great to see you. Glad you’re here. I got to tell you, I wasn’t sure…” Worry supplanted delight as he drew closer. “Good Lord, Vern, you look horrible. Are you OK? Here, sit down.” He grasped Vernon’s arm and guided him to an armchair against the wall across from his desk.

“I’m fine, just tired. You wouldn’t believe the night I had. Raymond’s the only one who got any sleep.”

“New home getting to you a bit?”

Vernon gave a mirthless chuckle. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“If you need to go home…”

“No!” He made himself relax and unclench his fists from the chair arms. A shudder rippled through his frame. “Sorry, didn’t mean to yell. You need me here, and I don’t want to disturb the family. You know how Cheryl gets when she’s arranging the house.”

“Yeah.” He laughed. “Remember that time I came over to watch the Super Bowl when she was putting in new bedroom furniture? I think I was lucky to escape with my head.” His laughter grew, and he leaned back in the chair. “And then you came back to my house. How long did you wind up staying before you decided it was safe to go home?”

Fighting back tears, Vernon forced a smile. “Three days. The first thing she did when I walked in the door was throw a plate at my head. I slept on the couch for a week.”

“Wow.” Ethan straightened and let his mirth subside. “Still, are you sure she doesn’t need you at home? It can’t be easy, trying to straighten all that up with two kids to deal with.”

“It’s not a problem. They got a girl from there in Jennings Grove to watch the kids for the day. She’s not even charging us for it.”

“Really? That’s nice.” He leaned forward. “That’s an odd little town, isn’t it?”

His heart sped up. “How do you mean?”

“When I visited there to look at that house, they greeted me with open arms. But once they found out I was just buying rental property, they acted like I told them I planned to move to town and personally strangle all their pets.” Ethan shook his head. “One guy – Ware, I think his name was – even offered to buy me out of the deal.”

“Travis Ware?”

“Yeah, that’s him. Called himself ‘mayor’ and walked around like he owned the whole place. I refused, of course. After that, they all stopped talking to me altogether, except to tell me that I couldn’t have people working on the house after dark.”

“Sounds reasonable to me. Who wants to hear construction at all hours?”

“I guess, but they were just so snotty about the whole thing.” He shrugged. “Besides, it wasn’t necessary, anyway. Would you believe that’s built into the deed restrictions? It says I can’t have any sort of contractor ‘or anyone not residing on the property between an hour before sunset and an hour after dawn.’ I got to tell you, I almost walked away from the whole thing when I saw that clause.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Money. With the land and house on it, it was too good a deal to pass up, even with all the work the house needed. I would have had to spend at least half as much more on any of the other properties I was looking at in the south part of the county. Say, how’s the house look, anyway? I haven’t been out there in awhile.”

“It’s fine for the most part. The water heater doesn’t vent right, though. It kind of smells like rush hour in the bathroom. And Cheryl wasn’t too thrilled with the asbestos siding and lead paint.”

“I know, I know. Tell her I plan to have it taken care of by the end of the year. I’m trying to see what my options are. You know how these environmental whackos can be with that stuff.”

“Take your time, Ethan. I told her that should be fine as long as we leave it up on the wall and don’t mess with it. I doubt you’ll hear another word from her about it.” Or anything else, he thought, fighting down a hysterical giggle.

“Well, it still needs to be dealt with. I’ll have my guy look at the water heater as soon as he can. He’s busy, though; it’ll probably be next week.”

“That’s fine.”

“Good.” Ethan dug around in a drawer and pulled out two pairs of safety glasses and earplugs. Handing one pair of each to Vernon, he stood and donned the protective equipment. Vernon followed suit. “What do you say we go down to the floor and walk around?”

He led the way out of the office and through the doors at the far end of the hall. On the other side, the thuds grew into a percussive beat that played on his ribcage like a second heartbeat. The sound changed, growing more complex. Even with the earplugs, he could make out several machines running at once, clattering and thumping in an endless cycle. The air smelled of hot plastic, grease and a faint whiff of ozone.

“You got some bad wiring in here?” Vernon asked, sniffing.

“One of our stamp presses went out this morning. I was hoping you could take a look at it and see if you could figure out why it fried.”

“Got me troubleshooting on the first day?”

“It’s one of the things you did best at Franklin.”

“I’ll get right on it as soon as we’re done here.”

They spent the next two hours in a flurry of greetings and handshakes until his head spun. He watched machines twisting thin steel rods into the branches of plastic trees, men and women cutting green sheets into small, simulated evergreen needles and even a couple of people flocking trees. October and they’re already consumed with Christmas trees. Well, December is only a couple of months away. I guess they do have to ramp up now.


Part III coming Monday!

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part I

Vernon's head slipped off his fist and slammed onto the conference room table. Jerking up, he looked at the elderly secretary whose soft knock had startled him awake. She gazed back with an expression torn between grandmotherly concern and annoyance for someone caught sleeping on the job. Reading glasses dangled from a chain around her neck.

“Are you OK, Mr. Hamilton? You’ve been in here half an hour.”

Rubbing his forehead, Vernon ventured a listless smile the hoped looked more sheepish than guilty. “I’m fine, ma’am. Just tired. You know – first night in a new house, nothing’s familiar and no one can get any sleep.” He managed a weak laugh. “I’m a city boy, and I got to tell you, it’s too quiet and too dark up here.”

Concern triumphed over annoyance. The secretary glanced back over her shoulder and shut the door before sitting next to him. “Isn’t it, though? We moved up here years ago from Dallas. Paris is a nice town, but I still wake up some nights wondering where all the cars are.” Leaning forward, she perched the glasses on her nose and looked over his half-completed paperwork. “I’ll give you a couple more minutes to let you finish this up, hon. Just drop it off at my desk when you’re done.” She stood and patted the white bun on the back of her head.

“Thanks, ma’am.” She nodded and slipped out the door.

He stared at the forms a moment before picking the pen up from where he had dropped it and filling out the rest of the blank fields. Before falling asleep, he'd agonized over “marital status” for several minutes before finally checking “married.” “Widowed” certainly didn’t sound right. Just because she's disappeared doesn’t mean she’s dead. He chewed on the pen while he reviewed the paperwork. Besides, Ware said to avoid attention. Saying she’s dead would draw all kinds of attention right now.

Vernon started to stand when he noticed an empty line under life insurance beneficiary. He’d put Ray’s name in the blank, but the form asked for his Social Security number. Wasn’t it six-six-three something? Or was it six-six-one? Cheryl always kept up with that stuff. His hands shook and fresh tears stung his eyes. Vernon shook his head. Get a grip! You’ve got work to do and a boy to take care of. This is no time to start falling apart. Breathing deeply, he waited until both trembling and tears stopped and stepped out of the conference room. The secretary – her nameplate said Rose Maldonado – looked up as he approached and slapped the paperwork down on her desk.

“All done,” he said. “Well, nearly all done. I’m going to have to get back with you on my son’s Social for the beneficiary form. I never can remember it.”

“That’s fine, hon.” Rose peered up at him over the rim of her glasses. “Mr. Roodschild wanted to see you as soon as you got done.”

“Thanks, Rose.” He started to walk away, then paused and turned back. “Which one is he in?”

She laughed and pointed down a hallway straight in front of him. “Go that way, through the double doors and turn left. He’s in the second office on the left.”

Vernon gave her a small salute and a grin and strode down the hall. The smile withered as he walked. Approaching the double doors, he caught sight of his reflection in the glass and recoiled slightly. The morning’s grooming hadn’t done much to improve his looks. If anything, it had made them worse. Eyes peered through dark circles in an otherwise scrubbed, freshly shaven face. What little hair he had had been tamed into rigid lines, contrasting his slumping frame. All together, it made him look like a well-prepared corpse left out just a little too long. He shuddered and walked through.

All the offices were on the left, most of the doors closed. Large, framed photographs of Christmas trees and men at machines lined the wall to his right, ending at another set of double doors at the far end of the hall. A rhythmic thudding came from the other side. He placed his hand on the wall. It vibrated in time with the bangs.

The second office door stood open. Vernon leaned on the frame. His friend was seated at the desk in his office, silver hair facing him as he ran down a column of figures with a ruler. Vernon smiled at the familiar sight and knocked softly on the open door. Ethan bolted upright, a grin replacing the serious expression on his face. Standing, he walked around the desk with one hand extended.


Part II coming Friday!

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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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Monday, September 17, 2007

Chapter 4: A Welcome, Part II

The door thumped shut behind them, leaving him alone with his slumbering infant.

Raymond secured in the middle of a ring of mounded pillows on a cleared part of the bed, Vernon shuffled into the kitchen. He stopped at the counter, pried open a couple of cardboard boxes and stared at them, his gaze shifting left and right between the two while his fuzzy brain tried to remember why it brought him here. His right hand dropped into a box and spider-crawled its way through the contents. Steel wool scratched his fingers, only to be shoved aside. A package of napkins flipped over the lid and landed on the green Formica counter. Canned vegetables rattled in the bottom as his hand encountered something hard and cool to the touch. He grasped it and pulled out a white mug bearing a small, red handprint and straggling letters proclaiming him “World’s Best Daddy.” The mug fell from dead fingers and smashed in the sink. Red shards of pottery stared at him from among the debris like bloody fingerprints left behind at a murder scene.

Coffee. I came in here for coffee. He rooted through the lefthand box and pulled out the coffeemaker. The pitcher had been wrapped and stuffed with newspaper to keep it from breaking. Vernon unwrapped the pot and removed the stuffing. Sniffling, he set the coffeepot in the sink and pushed the faucet lever back. Water rushed into the pot, quickly rising toward the top. He wiped his nose on his upper arm, leaving a pale green trail on the blue shirtsleeve. He shut the water off and left the pot in the sink while he dug the rest of the coffeemaker out of its box. His fingers left bright patches in the gray dust that marred its off-white plastic surface.

One eye on the lights overhead, Vernon held his breath and plugged the appliance into a wall outlet. Nothing happened. He heaved a sigh of relief, set the coffeepot on its warming plate and flipped the power switch. It glowed a welcoming orange. After a moment, clear water started dribbling into the pitcher. You idiot! Vernon snapped the switch off and pulled open the top. He rummaged around in the box and finally located the grounds and filters. Setting the filter in place, he heaped several scoops of coffee inside and switched it back on. He hesitated a moment, yawned, then opened the maker back up and tossed in more grounds. No time to sleep. Got to get to work soon. He shambled past the refrigerator, through the back room and into the bathroom.

The smell from the water heater slapped his nostrils. Slightly more alert, Vernon wrinkled his nose and flipped the light switch on. A pair of bare bulbs in the fixture overhead spread weak light over the room. He glanced up and grimaced. What do they got up there? Forty-watt bulbs? Going to have to replace those before tonight. A quick perusal of the sink and cabinet showed he had no toiletries. Grumbling under his breath, Vernon walked to the front of the house, pausing to check on the coffee – which was percolating nicely – and his son – who was snoring in his nest of pillows – before gently opening the door and stepping outside. A bright sun shone on the world. The cheerful autumn morning felt like an insult after the night just past.

His Camry sat in the driveway; a layer of dust dulled its green paint. The liftgate remained open. Vernon walked to the car and looked inside at boxes stacked in the back. Eyes scanning the cardboard pile, Vernon shifted boxes until he caught sight of a frayed blue strap. Glasses rattled as he shoved a container backward and lifted the handmade denim bag out. The gate shut with a thud and he carried the bag inside. Ray stirred but didn’t awaken as Vernon made his way back to the bathroom.

The bag’s contents clinked and clattered as it hit the counter. Vernon’s hand rested on the zipper while the other caressed the faded denim. How many times had he begged Cheryl to replace the thing? She’d already had it for years when he met her, one of the few successful projects to come out of a home economics class in college. She had always refused, and the bag continued to serve their family like an old servant who grew more tattered with age but bore their burdens without fail and without complaint. Vernon unzipped it.

Shaving cream emerged to stand at attention next to deodorant while his toothbrush and razor loafed nearby. He turned to place the shampoo and soap on the edge of the bathtub, along with a tightly rolled rag and towel. Mouthwash and toothpaste thumped onto the counter. Vernon tossed the bag into the corner next to the water heater and turned the faucet on. Hot water scalded his waiting hand almost immediately.

“Son of a –” The rest died in an unintelligible mutter as he shoved wounded digits in his mouth. The thing’s sitting right there. How long did you think it would take to heat the water up? He spun the cold spigot with his free hand and withdrew his fingers to inspect the damage. They were red, but didn’t look severely burned. He scowled, picked up the shaving cream and lathered his face.

Vernon dragged the razor slowly across his chin, scraping over the skin as it cut through new growth. He tried to watch himself in the mirror, but his mind kept going back to the morning’s conversation with Travis Ware, worrying over two particular points like a dog with a chicken leg.

Where would you go? Ware had asked. Vernon shook his head and stared down at the steaming sink. That question hit closer to home than he cared to think about. Since the death of his parents in a house fire twelve years ago, he had no family of his own, not even an uncle or cousin. The thought of going to his wife’s family was laughable. They never liked me much to begin with. What would they say if I showed up with their daughter and granddaughter mysteriously disappeared? Oh, they'd cheerfully take Raymond, and just as cheerfully leave Vernon out to dry. But a boy needed his father, not his grandparents. Besides, Ware had given him every reason to stay right here.

The water heater kicked on with a fwoomp, startling him out of his thoughts. He picked up the toothpaste and brush and started cleaning his teeth.


Part III coming Friday!

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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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Friday, September 7, 2007

Chapter 3: First Night, Part IV

As if the thought were a signal, the little tugs ceased. Something rushed past him in a steady stream. Vernon sensed it building somewhere on the other side of the room, a mounting wave waiting to crush him and his son. Eyes wide, he continued groping. His hand brushed cool metal. He tried to grab it. The flashlight rolled away again. His questing fingers found nothing but carpet and desk.

The streaming sensation stopped. Floorboards creaked, and the night growled. It came as a deep rumble more felt than heard. The floor trembled, and off to his left, he could hear metal vibrating against wood. Vernon leaned over and snatched at the sound, his fist closing around the metal cylinder. He hauled himself upright and set the flashlight on one cocked knee. He frantically squeezed the barrel. Where's the switch? The room fell silent.

When his hand closed over a smooth circle, Vernon ran it to the other end and squeezed. His middle finger landed on rubber and the flashlight flared to life with a soft click and caught him full in the face. He spun it around and cringed, waiting for night to overwhelm the feeble illumination. The light stabbed forward about as far as his foot, a short, blunt club when he needed a spear. Still, it was the only weapon he had. He swished it back and forth. The beam grew with each pass, driving the darkness back. It went – though not as far as before – and resumed its circling.

Thank God. His breaths came in ragged pants. He looked down at Ray, who remained sleeping in his arms. The baby had a double handful of his shirt. Vernon held the light up over his head, shining it down over the pair of them. He wondered how long he could hold it up there. However long it takes. I sure can't set it down again.

Not that that was the end of it. Whatever was out there apparently learned from its failure. As much as the headlong assault had unnerved him, Vernon soon found its new tactics were worse.

It started with a nudge at the flashlight. Tired as he was, he had difficulty telling the intrusion from his own trembling at first. It wasn't until the light started slipping from his weakened grasp that he realized the problem. He tightened his hold and whipped his wrist around, pushing the darkness away before quickly shining it back over himself. In that short gap, shadows crept in and pulled at Raymond. They fled when the light returned, only to have something else try to pull the flashlight free.

Vernon spent the night in a deadly game of tag, chasing shadows away only to have them sneak up from another direction. He'd feel something crawling along his leg one moment and tugging at his shirt the next. The attacks came faster and faster, snatching at his waist, baby, light, shoes or even hair in rapid succession. Before long, he had long scratches along his arms, legs and neck. His shirt hung in ribbons, and a good portion of his pants lay on the floor, shredded to tatters below the knee. Even Raymond hadn't escaped. Red welts marred the soles of his feet and left cheek. He stared up at his father, trembling and whimpering. But Vernon had been able to shield him from the worst of it.

Tears of frustration trickled down his cheeks. Exhaustion threatened to drag him under as each long minute dragged by. Every sweep of the light, every new tug on his clothing only added to his misery. As midnight crawled toward morning, Vernon found himself wishing he could just give in, lay down and let the darkness roll over him. I can't do this again, he thought as he waved the light yet again. I just can't. He swept it around in another arc to shoo the night away from his foot.

Every time he thought about quitting, Cheryl's face swam in his vision. He saw her disappearing into the darkness over and over, heard her cries to save their son, witnessed her final action to push her baby to safety. I've lost them all but Ray. I abandoned them. He looked down at the boy dozing in his arms once more. I tried to abandon him, but Cheryl wouldn't let me. That one burned most of all. Shame strengthened his limbs long after his will gave out.

The night passed so slowly that Vernon didn't know what he was seeing until he realized he could see. When he lifted his eyes from the immediate circle of his body, he found himself blinking at the far wall of the room and a black, gaping hole he thought must be the bathroom doorway. We made it! He tilted the flashlight down toward the floor. Immediately, it started sliding from his grip, but the pull lacked the strength it had earlier. Vernon snapped it back up and resumed protective, sweeping arcs of light.

Weak, bitter laughter escaped his lips. He'd passed a night in hell and lived to talk about it. All it cost me was most of my family. Just a little longer, and they'd be safe.

Dawn was coming.

Part I of Chapter 4 coming Monday!

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Chapter 3: First Night, Part III

He craned his neck to peek out the window through a gap in the curtains. Full night ruled out there, broken only by a few stars. Is it even eight o'clock yet? He glanced down at his wrist. Blood dripped where his watch had been. Shaking his head, he leaned against the wall and sighed. He'd never appreciated just how bright Houston was. Light was everywhere in the city. Even at midnight, streetlights glowed, cars drove by and a few neighbors stayed awake. But out here, light only remained while you created it. Darkness reined supreme everywhere else. Why do people always want to leave the city and come out here?

Vernon began to see patterns as the darkness writhed around them. It flowed like a black river, creating alien alphabets and pictures in its whirls and eddies. He even saw faces in that blackness, but looked away hurriedly, afraid of seeing a small, familiar visage looking back at him. Occasionally, tendrils of shadow ventured toward them, only to whip back from the light. Mesmerized, his eyes started to lose focus. His head nodded.

Afterward, he could never pinpoint the moment he drifted off to sleep. One minute, he was listening to the slow, steady breathing of his wife and son while gazing at the midnight kaleidoscope around them, and the next, he was jerking his cheek off his wife's hair to look at the ring of light, certain it had grown smaller while they dozed. But everyone was still here. Sucking in lungful of air, he tried to slow the galloping pace of his heart. He leaned back and gazed at Cheryl. Sleep had erased the lines of worry that etched themselves into her face when she awoke. The light created a halo around her, outlining the edges of her body in a soft glow. His eyes followed the line from her head down her shoulder to her arm holding their baby, the elbow resting on her hip, which led down her leg and to her foot…

Vernon's eyes widened. Her foot was gone, slipped into the shadows.

Slowly reaching across her, he grabbed Cheryl's knee and pulled. She stirred and murmured, but didn't awake. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Her foot wouldn't budge. With a grunt of effort, he pulled as hard as he could. Something popped and ripped. He caught a glimpse of her ankle and tattered shoe before her leg snapped straight and disappeared to the calf.

Eyes popping open, Cheryl screamed. She clutched Ray, muffling his own cries against her chest. Her leg sawed back and forth, dragging her a little further into the darkness with each pass. It twisted, and she flopped over onto her belly. She started sliding faster. She extended her arms, pushing the baby toward him. Hugging himself, Vernon shook his head in mute denial.

"Take him! Take Raymond!" She jerked back until darkness hid everything below her armpits. "Don't let it get him! Take your son!"

His gaze flickered between his wife's anguished face and the squealing infant in her outstretched hands. He unclenched one fist gripping his shirt and hesitantly reached for Raymond. She slid back to her neck, and he jerked his hand back. She kept yelling for him to take his son. Raymond squalled. Vernon started to reach out again and froze as the night claimed its prize and wrenched her from sight. Her screams cut short.

Tears screaming down his cheeks, Vernon groped in his pool of light until a tiny hand grabbed his finger. He snatched his son against his chest and rocked until Ray's cries subsided.

"You got her!" he yelled. His voice cracked. "Isn't that enough? Leave us alone!"

The darkness, apparently unmoved and unsated, continued its black dance around his illuminating shelter like coyotes circling a campfire. Shapes formed and broke apart. He saw Cheryl and Alexis gazing back at him from time to time, silent and accusing. He wanted to plead with them, tell them he was sorry, that he had done everything he could. But his tongue refused to form the words. You abandoned them, a voice whispered from the back of his mind. They know it. You know it. Why lie? He wept and closed his eyes.

Leaning back, Vernon tilted his head against the wall. The sobs grew until they shook his body. Raymond squirmed and whined. He propped the baby on his shoulder, rubbing his back until Ray fell quiet once more. Vernon wiped his eyes clear and stared at the writhing darkness. He ran his vision around the swirling lines, trying not to focus on any one detail. Still, he caught a glimpse of a reproachful face every so often. He shied away from the glares and moved onto another section of night whenever that happened. His eyes moved continuously, gliding and circling from one line to the next, around and around and around... His head bobbed.

Vernon bolted upright and slapped his face. Wrenching his eyes away from the dancing night, he stared at the ring of light that ended just beyond his toes.

The line quivered.

Rubbing his eyes with the heel of his free hand, Vernon blinked several times and looked again. The edge vibrated and blurred. Something scraped softly along the wall behind him and the circle shrank a hair. He reached up, careful to keep his hand along the light's edge without casting too much shadow over himself or Raymond. His gaze swiveled from spot to spot, searching for any encroaching darkness. His hand reached the wall where he had wedged the flashlight.

It had moved.

Where his fingers should have felt the light's flared head, they instead encountered its rubber power switch. He felt along the barrel. He poked it. The flashlight remained steady. He gave it a tug. It shifted slightly, but still seemed to be securely wedged against the wall. Frowning, Vernon pushed it back to its original position and shoved the television over to tighten its hold. It pushed back, softly at first, then with increasing pressure until it squealed across the wooden surface. The TV snapped his hand to one side as it became airborne. It sailed into the darkness and smashed against the far wall with a loud crash and tinkle of falling glass.

Freed from its prison, the flashlight tumbled. It struck the edge of the desk and clicked off. It bounced away, struck his shoulder and fell to the floor beside him.

Darkness descended upon them. It didn't fall all at once, but flowed in, moving quickly but cautiously like an animal stalking the hunter that had wounded it. Vernon could feel its first exploratory advances. It plucked at him. Shoestrings tightened, then sagged. His pants leg twitched. One shirt sleeve fluttered, and the collar flipped back and forth. Ray's onesie tugged and pulled around his arm in several directions. Vernon fumbled at his side. His hand brushed the flashlight and sent it rolling. He heard it bump against the side of the desk. The darkness pulled harder at his clothing. He reached for the flashlight, hand spider-crawling across the floor. He couldn't find it. How much longer before it stops playing?
Part IV coming Friday!

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