Friday, October 26, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part IV

Rubbing his nose, he choked back the tears and snatched a light green blanket from the top shelf. He slammed the door closed and stalked into the living room, dragging the cover behind him like a child preparing for bed. He threw himself in the recliner, pulled the lever and flapped the blanket, letting it settle over him. Vernon leaned back and closed his eyes with one arm folded across his face. His right arm, he kept draped over his belly. He flexed the fingers and wrist to find the pain there fading. His elbow hurt when he moved, but not as much as before. Guess I got lucky. Vernon yawned and drifted. He was nearly asleep when a thought rose up. What about the dark under the blanket?

He tried to ignore it. The blanket was thin enough to let a fair amount of light through. If something was going to happen, wouldn't it have by now? The darkness hadn't shown much patience so far. He shifted in the chair. The blanket fluttered and stilled. Might as well worry about darkness in your pants. Something brushed his leg, and he scratched it with his foot. He felt something scurry across his chest and took the arm off his eye to swat it. At the next intrusion, his eyes popped open, and he lifted the blanket. Dim, green light illuminated the length of his body, but he couldn't see any scurrying shadows. What is going on here? He rubbed his leg again, balled the blanket and threw it across the room. Bouncing out of the recliner, he started brushing and swatting everything he could reach with his left arm. My clothes must be full of them!

Vernon caught sight of himself dancing and squirming in the window. Shaking his head, he stilled and forced himself to take deep breaths. Just like when we went camping. He'd made a few outdoors excursions with Cheryl while courting her, and the first sight of a mosquito, ant trail or spider web always sent him into gyrations while he tried to remove imaginary bugs from his body. No matter how much he could feel them marching across his skin, they never found a single insect.

The room suddenly felt stifling. Vernon walked to the front door, opened it and stepped out onto the lit porch, taking deep breaths of chill autumn air. The night writhed beyond the steps. He leaned against the door and watched.

A patch of the random, black-on-black shapes paled ever so slightly and coalesced into a defined, if hard to see, form. At first, it looked like some kind of tall bird standing before him with wings lifted for flight. As the edges sharpened, he realized it was a figure holding its arms outstretched. It had no more detail than a shadow, but he knew that figure quite well.

"Cheryl?" Half-whisper, half-sob, the word threatened to strangle him as he forced it through a constricted throat. He took a step forward.

The figure retreated a step and sharpened.

Another step carried him halfway across the porch.

His wife's shade backed up, arms still open. The darkness swirled, lightened and formed a smaller, vague figure to her left.

Vernon stepped to the terminator between light and dark at the edge of the porch.

The pair retreated again, still faint but growing sharper. Faint laughter floated to him through the night.

"They said you'd come back. That's the only reason I stayed." The figures stood motionless and silent. "Come closer, please."

Cheryl shook her head and lifted her arms higher. Vernon lifted his foot.

The phone rang.

"What?" Blinking, he turned his head back to the living room, where the phone called for his attention. He scowled and turned back to the yard. His family still beckoned. He started to step off the porch as the answering machine's digital voice answered. If you don't answer, they'll come here. They'll bring light and drive them away. "Just a minute," he called to Cheryl and dashed back into the house.

Picking up the cordless handset cut the answering machine off. "Hello?" he gasped.

"Mr. Hamilton." Travis Ware's voice issued from the earpiece. "I was starting to worry about –"

"What do you want, Ware? I'm kind of busy?"

"Are you alright, Mr. Hamilton?" While he spoke, Vernon leaned back and tried to look out the door, but couldn't see past the frame. Ware's voice sharpened and took on an urgent note. "What's going on there?"

"Nothing." He walked to the door. The night was totally black. "No!"

"What is it?"

"They're gone!"

"Who's gone? Mr. Hamilton, have you seen them already?"

"Gone." Vernon whimpered in his throat. "They were right there."

"I told you it's best to ignore them, Vern. Trust me, no good can come from paying too much attention to any apparitions you see at night."

He wiped tears from his eyes. "Shut up!"

"I know how you feel, and I'm sorry for your pain, but if you think about it, you'll realize I'm right."

"I said, shut up! I had them here. A few more minutes and I could have gotten them to talk to me, or gone out to them or something…"

"You step out into the night, and you'll never come back."

"Fine! I don't care! What do I have here, anyway?"

Ware's voice hardened. "You have a son, Mr. Hamilton. I'd say that's something. Are you so selfish that you'd abandon him for the sake of a lie?"

Vernon slammed the phone down with a wordless yell and walked out onto the porch. He stayed there for several hours, eyes scanning the darkness, but his wife and daughter didn't return.

Finally, exhausted, he went back inside, threw himself on the recliner and wept until he fell asleep.


Part I of Chapter 7 coming soon!

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part III

As the curtain fell back in place behind him, he stared around the kitchen, unsure of what exactly he wanted. Finally, he shrugged, ignored the cabinets and headed for the refrigerator. After everything else they did, they probably left something in there to eat. He hooked fingers through the refrigerator and freezer handles, opened both doors and peered inside.

A wide assortment of food stared him in the face. Unfortunately, it was only a potential feast – cartons of eggs, frozen microwave dinners, beef, chicken, pork, sliced meat, cheese, sandwich condiments, vegetables, fruit, milk, soft drinks, juice, butter, bread. And not one bit of cooked food to be seen, not so much as a casserole or salad. I guess they think I need to learn to be a cook, too, he thought sourly and swung the doors shut. As they closed, the fridge shuddered and the compressor started up. The lights flickered. Not again!

He dashed around the ice box toward the back room. Something caught at his shoe laces, and he stumbled through the doorway, banging his injured arm against the doorframe. Grimacing and rubbing his elbow, he turned to see shadows streaking across the floor in time with the flickering lights. They converged on the doorway, backing off only when they hit the patch of illumination coming from the back room. It knows I'm here. It only lasted a few seconds before the lights overhead steadied and banished the darkness.

Vernon sighed and took a shaky step back into the kitchen. The darkness had seemed nearly mindless the night before, but those streaks of shadow just now had been quite orderly, heading straight for him like a pack of wolves trying to corner a deer. Is it learning, somehow? A frightening thought, one followed by an even more frightening idea: What if it's mad because it couldn't get me? What happens when it learns more?

A foul-tasting, caustic burp slipped free. His throat constricted at sudden pressure rising from below. Hand clasped over his mouth, Vernon spun on one heel and dashed into the bathroom. He just made it in time, sliding to a halt at the toilet and bending over as the afternoon's sandwich forced its way back up, burning his throat and mouth as bile and partially digested food splashed into the bowl. Gagging at the vomit smell wafting back up at him, he winced as his stomach clenched painfully and he retched again. And again. And again. Finally the spasms passed and he collapsed next to the commode, gasping through a raw throat.

"Oh, man," he croaked, and swallowed. Even that hurt.

Lightheaded, he grasped the side of the toilet and climbed to his trembling knees and then shaky feet. He flushed it, watched everything he'd eaten that day swirl around for a moment and stepped to the sink, where he splashed cold water on his face. Once the dizziness passed, he stepped into the back room. He spied his flashlight on the floor where he had left it that morning and went to retrieve it. Couldn't hurt. Picking it up, he thumbed the rubber button only to have the bulb flash briefly and die with a pop. At least I've got all those new ones... He smacked his forehead. His entire supply of lights and batteries were still in the car, surrounded by a sea of night. He hurled the flashlight into the corner with a yell. It struck the wall with a tinkling of glass and thudded to the floor. Pounding his fist into his thigh, he stalked out of the room.

Back in the kitchen, Vernon glanced at the refrigerator, shuddered, and turned his gaze to the cabinets. His stomach clenched. Not right now, he thought and rubbed his throat. Food might not be a consideration, but he could use some water.

He walked to the nearest cabinet. Plates and bowls, but past them to the right he could see the glasses lurking behind the next door. Small glasses squatted in front of their taller brethren, with the plastic cousins relegated to the corners. Vernon rose to his toes and stretched his good arm to grab a large, blue cup from behind a bowl. Faint shadows crawled across his hand and forearm. They lacked any real strength, but that didn't stop them from trying to hold him back. It was like fighting cold cobwebs that squirmed and grasped. He dropped to his heels and whipped his hand down. A few strands followed his arm out of the cabinet, withered and died in the light. Trembling, he shuffled to the sink, filled the plastic cup and brought it to his lips. Shaking hands sloshed the water; he spilled nearly as much as he got down his throat. He repeated the process, drinking more this time. Vernon tossed the cup in the sink and walked to the side door, through the second bedroom into his room.

He stopped at the bed and tossed a few pillows to the other side before halting. Do you really want to sleep in here tonight? No, he didn't. The thought of spending the night where he'd almost been taken earlier threatened to make his gorge rise again. Leaning out the door, he glanced at the recliner. I've slept in it before just fine. Just need a blanket or something. Vernon walked around his bed to the closet on the far side, pausing to look at the blackness pressing against the side window. He swallowed hard, grasped the knob and yanked it open.

Shadow loomed over his head, toppling toward him as soon as the door opened. Shouting, Vernon collapsed, using both arms to scoot backward, heedless of his sore elbow. The wall of darkness evaporated as it fell, gone before it touched the floor. He scrambled to his feet with a strangled sob.

"Come on!" he yelled at the closet "Just leave me alone for a few minutes, that's all I ask. Just a few minutes without something trying to drag me off!"


Part IV coming Friday!

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part II

Vernon took a step and nearly fell when his arm wouldn’t move. He twisted, jerked and pulled free a few inches before stopping. He flattened himself against the wall. His elbow dug painfully against the doorjamb, and he could feel the cold grip enveloping his wrist and forearm trying to draw him back in the darkened room. He groaned and leaned back, his weight maintaining the status quo. For now, anyway. But what happens if my arm breaks? Wood creaked. His elbow creaked.

He pulled harder. Wood bit deeper into his flesh. Warmth trickled down his arm. He gritted his teeth and planted his feet on the floor. He tugged back with a groan that grew to a yell and then a scream. Pain ripped through his elbow, but he felt the grip on the other end lessen slightly. Then the ancient carpet gave way with a dull, dry rip.

Sneakers slipping, Vernon slammed into the wall and dangled with legs splayed and butt a foot off the floor. Wood scraped and agony burned up and down his arm. Vernon felt himself slowly dragged back into the room. He dug in his heels. More carpet ripped and twin furrows cut through the pad underneath. The rubber soles caught the floor beneath, squealing as they skidded along the oak planks. His forehead smacked into the doorframe, and his arm disappeared to just below the shoulder. He planted his right foot on the far side of the doorframe, his left hand on the wall and heaved. He grunted with the effort. Muscles in his arm and leg tightened and bulged.

“Let go,” he gasped. “Let go. Let go, let go, let GO!”

With a strained hop, his left foot landed on the wall and pushed. More of his arm emerged. Vernon jerked, exposing more of the trapped limb. The motion sent the arm sliding up the wall and into the switch. The darkness growled as light flooded the bedroom. He thudded to the floor and rolled, coming to a stop on his stomach. He closed his eyes and breathed heavily, coughing at the dust kicked up when he fell. It wasn't that tough before. What's going on? He shook his head. Got to be more careful.

As his breathing evened and his heart slowed to something like a normal rate, Vernon rolled over, sat up and scooted toward the wall. He cradled his right arm against his stomach. The elbow ached, and blood seeped from a shallow cut where the wood had bit into his flesh. An ugly weal spiraled from forearm to wrist, and bruises covered most of the lower half of his arm. It looked as if someone had wrapped a rope around it and dragged him around the yard. Vernon bumped into the wall, placed a shaky hand against the textured sheetrock and slowly climbed to his feet. He drew in a long, ragged breath and sagged against the wall with his head resting on his forearm while he stared into the bedroom.

It looked so normal with the lights on, a nice place to lie down and sleep. Gazing at the pillows piled at the head, he felt a sudden chill. What if Ray had been here? His trembling increased. What if he'd been asleep on the bed when I shut the light off? His fist smacked into the wall. Stupid! He punched it again. Stupid! Again. Stupid! Again. He didn't stop until he had knocked a hole in the plaster. After one last look at the bed, he staggered over to the recliner and plopped down, sticking as many of his sore, bloody knuckles in his mouth as possible.

"Thank God the babysitter still has him," he muttered around the fist. Vernon yanked on the lever on the side of the chair; the footrest jerked up with a clanking of metal, and the backrest creaked as he leaned back. Sore arm crooked across his abdomen, he placed his other hand behind his head, pinky tapping his skull while he gazed out the darkened window above the old air conditioner. Don't let it get him, she told me. If he'd been here, I'd have done just that. He glared at his reflection in the glass. What kind of father are you? His stomach grumbled in counterpoint. Vernon ignored it, leaned back and closed his eyes. With work beckoning in the morning, sleep was more important than food right now.

Cheryl's face appeared in the darkness behind his lids, equal parts terror and determination painted on her features as she pushed the baby toward him before sliding off into the night. Eyes popping open, Vernon grimaced and squirmed in the seat. He jostled the injured arm and gasped. Once the pain settled to its previous dull throb, he closed his eyes again. His wife's terrified face confronted him once more. He sighed, took deep breaths and stared at the overhead lights until his eyes hurt and spots danced in his vision. It didn't help. Again and again, he closed his eyes to find her waiting for him. Again and again, he watched the night drag her away and leave the baby lying on the floor.

When his stomach gurgled again, he jerked the lever on his chair and dropped the footrest with a clunk. The recliner rocked forward; he bounced out of the seat, ignoring the pain in his elbow. He went into the kitchen.


Part III coming Monday!

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part I

Vernon reached out and placed a hand on the knob, but continued to stare at the door for several minutes. Worse? How could it possibly be any worse? He might have laughed if it weren’t such a frightening idea. What’s going to happen tonight? His grip tightened, then turned. The door pulled from its frame with a loud creak, and a breeze blew through, carrying an autumn chill and the fresh scent of the surrounding pastures. Vernon closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. It was a clean smell, void of the foul odors of livestock he usually associated with the country. Knotted muscles in his shoulders started to relax. He leaned on the doorframe I guess that’s one benefit to living out here – the clean country life in Jennings Grove really is clean. It’s just the sort of place we always wanted for Alexis and Raymond. Sighing, he opened his eyes as his mood sank once more. He remained leaning, arms folded as he watched the sun dip below the horizon and tried to recapture a bit of that feeling.

Shadows crept across the yard. Vernon blinked and rubbed his eyes. It made no difference. Darkness slid amoeba-like from underneath his car, deepening as it spread. Smaller puddles slunk from behind small hillocks and crawled out of dips in the yard. They sought each other out, running across the yard and pooling into larger and larger shadows that soon surrounded everything except the few places still exposed to the sun. Those islands of light dwindled and vanished until the only source of illumination came from the living room behind him.

Darkness oozed from between the boards near his feet and underneath the stairs to wash across the porch. The current eddied around the small rectangle of light, pushing at it. Vernon watched a moment, then straightened and flipped a second switch by the door. A bulb snapped on, bathing house and porch in its white brilliance. Shadows retreated to the edges. He slammed the door shut and turned to face the empty house.

Given how many people had been there, he found the living room surprisingly clean. The residents of Jennings Grove were polite intruders, it seemed. They’d left the furniture straight, Cheryl’s wingback “reading chair” and his recliner sitting side by side against one wall and the couch framing the walkway to the kitchen. He stooped and fished a couple of balled napkins from the floor, but couldn’t find any other signs of the party. After a quick glance to his left to make sure the light was on in the bedroom, he walked through to the kitchen, tossed the napkins in the trash can – which had a new liner in it – and looked around. As spotless as the front room, except for dishes stacked in the sink.

“Gotcha,” he muttered and walked to the counter. The dishes had been washed. What’s with these people? They live in a place where the night eats their families, and they just barge in whenever they feel like it, but they’ll stock your cabinets and wash the dishes while they’re at it? “Rod Sterling, take me away.”

He left the plates, bowls and glasses to dry and wandered into the second bedroom. Alexis’ bed remained as pristine as when they had moved in, the pink and yellow comforter nearly bright enough to banish the night by itself. All the boxes had been removed here, as well. In his own room, the furniture had been straightened and clothes put away, but the bed remained unmade. Ray’s nest of pillows – had it only been this morning? – still sat in the middle of the mattress. I guess they were more concerned with getting all the boxes taken care of. Or maybe they just wanted to leave me something to do. An oddly mundane chore given all that had happened in the last day or so. He shrugged. Might as well get to it. Heaven knew he could use some sense of normalcy, and he would have to get used to domestic duties sooner or later.

Pillows got tossed on the floor. He yanked the pale yellow sheet and dark blue quilt back and pulled on the corners of the fitted sheet until they lined up perfectly with the mattress. Cheryl had always been very strict about that. Next, the top sheet went back on the bed. He spent some time making sure the edges hung equally from both sides before tucking it in at the foot of the bed. He never quite understood why his wife insisted on that when the quilt covered everything anyway. “If you’re going to do it, do it right,” she always said. If only she could see me now. He smoothed the last few wrinkles out of the quilt and set about piling the pillows at the head of the bed. By the time he got it just right, all traces of day had vanished; if not for reflected glare from the light overhead, the window might have been a hole opening on some remote region of space. Vernon stepped back to admire his handiwork. Looks like a soldier’s bunk from some war movie. He gave a single, satisfied nod and walked out the door.

His hand, moving out of an ingrained habit, slipped back into the room, slapped the wall and slid down. The light switch flipped off.


Part II coming Friday!

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part VI

Sighing heavily, Vernon nodded and let Ware lead him through the press, which parted for Ware as readily as the Red Sea had for Moses. Figures they’d let him through. He scowled at the floor as Travis pulled the green curtain to one side and they passed into the kitchen. He yanked a chair from underneath the table and plopped down before looking up. A soft swell of conversation filled the room. Fewer people had come in here, allowing him to see more of the room itself.

It was perfect. Not a box or bag to be found, just a few appliances on the counter. He caught sight of an upper cabinet door slightly ajar. Plates sat atop one another on one shelf, with a stack of bowls next to it. Ignoring the soft chatting around him, Vernon stood and approached the cupboard, using one finger to hook the door and pull it open. A lemony scent of some cleaner or other wafted out. Inside, glasses and coffee mugs occupied the top two shelves, all arrayed as orderly as a contingent of soldiers. He turned and faced Ware with an eyebrow cocked.

“Some of the women in town got together and straightened the house for you.”

“And you just went right ahead and let them in?” Vernon asked softly. The murmurs faltered and died. Every eye in the room turned toward him.

Travis chuckled. “‘A man’s not fit to organize the home,’ they said. You were married. Did you ever find it beneficial to argue with a woman on matters like this?”

Vernon opened his mouth, then shut it and lowered his head. That “were” stung, hard enough to slump his shoulders and send him shuffling back to his chair. Snippets of conversation sprung up, a couple at first, then more following as they realized the scene had passed. I swore till death. Until I see a body, I’m still married. I don’t care what he says.

Revelers tried to draw him into the party, with words of welcome, compliments on his son and commiseration for his loss offered like bait to a feral dog being coaxed into a cage. He refused to be drawn in. When the attempts at conversation continued, he retreated to the back room. He huddled on the blue couch. The hide-a-bed’s iron works squeaked when he shifted. Finally, they got the message and stopped coming up to him. Even Ware left him alone, for which Vernon was grateful. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep to dream of pushing Alexis on a swing while Cheryl held Raymond and watched from the other side.

“Higher, Daddy! Higher!” His wife laughed. Vernon grinned at her and blinked. She and the baby seemed dim, somehow less substantial than the rest of the world. He glanced down at Alexis. The swing felt as heavy as it always had, but she looked just as faint as the other two. Only his body and the grass at his feet looked solid. He turned his gaze skyward. A shaft of sunlight surrounded him while shadows deepened elsewhere. Vernon stepped forward. Better to be with them in darkness than alone in the light. The illumination moved with him, but his family never got any closer. By now, he could barely see them. Vernon moved faster, trying to share the protective light with them. No matter how quickly he ran, they remained out of reach. Soon he lost sight of them altogether, hemmed in on all sides by darkness except for the small shaft of light around him. It was like being stuck in a well.

“Vernon,” his wife called, her voice faint as if from a great distance. He trembled. “Vernon…” His shaking increased.

Jerking awake, he flailed and grabbed the couch cushion. The textured fabric felt reassuringly solid. His breathing evened and his heart slowed. He looked up at Travis, who had stopped shaking him now that he was awake.

“Everyone’s leaving,” Ware said, nodding at the window, which showed a quickly dying day outside.

“Alright,” he said, sitting up. Vernon rubbed his eyes, frowning as his hands came away wet. He looked back and saw damp spots on the couch where his head had lain. He wiped the last of the tears away and stood. “Where’s Ray?”

“Your son is still with Kateri, at the Williams’ house.”

“Do I need to go get him?”

“No. They’ll bring him back tomorrow after you get home from work.”

“What?” Indignation swelled his chest and drew him upright. “If you think I’m going to let y’all take my kid…”

Travis sighed. “Look, Vernon. This will be your second night in Jennings Grove. In some ways it’ll be tougher than your first. We’ve found it’s easier if you spend at least one night alone to get acclimated. This way, you’re past the shock and can better care for your family.”

“Oh.” Deflated, Vernon nodded and followed Travis through the house to the front door. “Good night, then.”

“Good night. Be careful tonight, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

The door closed with a thump, leaving Vernon alone with his thoughts and the encroaching night. ____

Chapter 6 coming Monday!

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part V

Vernon walked slowly to the cash register, leaning back to keep the load from falling to the floor. Even so, he had to stop several times and shrug lights and batteries back into place. He dropped everything on the counter with a sound like marbles spilling across the floor. Several packages of batteries fell off. Vernon squatted to retrieve them while the guy behind the counter started ringing the items up and placing them in a paper bag on the counter. His apron named him Gary, a completely bald man who could be called young only compared to Theron. He looked like a straighter, less wrinkled version of the older man. He must be the “& Son.”

“You planning some kind of campout, mister?” Gary asked. He glanced at Vernon between items, his hands never pausing on the register keys.

“Not really.” As the silence drew out, he shrugged and added, “They’re for the family.”

“Ah,” Gary replied. “Kids scared of the dark?”

“Yes! That’s it right there. It’s an old house, and it’s hard to keep lights on all the time. Figured this would help keep them quiet and go to sleep.”

“Sounds like a good idea.” He smiled. “And if nothing else, you’ve got enough here to see you through the end of the world.”

Vernon offered a thin smile in return and fell silent. Gary made his last keystroke and punched a large button at the bottom. The total flashed up on a small screen facing Vernon: $237.52. He gulped and drew the cash from his pocket, wincing as he peeled each twenty off the roll. He handed twelve bills to the clerk and looked at the remaining money. At least two-thirds of it still remained. How much did they give me? He stuffed the money back in his pocket along with his change and grabbed the paper bag. The weight felt reassuring.

The sun had sunk noticeably toward the horizon by the time he reached his car. He opened the passenger door and dropped the sack on the floor. He stood there for several minutes, gazing northward with a growing sense of unease tying his stomach in knots. Even armed as he was, he felt ill prepared for the coming night. What if it’s not enough? he thought and glanced at the bag. What if it takes Ray, too? He slunk around the car and dropped himself into the driver’s seat. He paid just enough attention to the highway to keep from driving off the road or into other cars, missing FM 197. He only realized his error when he crossed the Red River into Oklahoma. He had to make two U-turns before he snapped himself out of his funk and found the right road. He drove slowly down the winding farm road. No matter how he tried to draw it out, however, he eventually came to County Road 36850 and turned right.

Springs in the Camry’s suspension bounced and squeaked down the gravel road and onto the driveway. Vernon stared at the white house, cringing back into his seat as it grew larger in his vision. When he looked back at the driveway, he found a large blue pickup parked directly in front of him, the last in a long line of vehicles. Yelling, Vernon twisted the wheel, stomped on the brake pedal and drove off into the yard. He sat there for several minutes, breathing heavily with his head on the steering wheel. His right hand shoved the transmission lever into park and rose, shaking, to turn the ignition off and yank the key out.

Who are all these people? What are they doing here? He climbed out of the car and stalked through the grass. Lights shone in every window he could see. I’ve got enough problems without everyone in the universe showing up tonight. You’d think they would understand that better than anyone. He could feel a scowl drawing his brow down and bowing his mouth, but didn’t bother trying to smooth his features. If they were going to be rude enough to show up unannounced, they deserved whatever they got. He stomped up the stairs and hauled the door open.

“Alright, this is…”

The words died in his throat, swallowed in a roar of greeting from dozens of people packed in the house. A banner stretched across the far wall blazing the message “Welcome home!” Red, green and blue balloons squeaked as they floated and overhead, enough of them that he couldn’t see the ceiling. Travis Ware stood smiling at the front of the throng. He didn’t see the babysitter anywhere. She’s probably in the back room or something. He looked around. All the people standing around made it difficult to tell much about the room, but he thought it looked a little too neat. Where’d all the boxes go?

“I said it once this morning, but please allow me to say it again: Welcome to Jennings Grove, Mr. Hamilton,” Ware said, taking a step forward arms outspread.

“Yeah, thanks.” Vernon sidestepped the mayor and broke left toward his room. The line of people bent without giving way. “Excuse me, please.” They muttered and looked at each other, but no one moved. He waved a hand at the bedroom. “Do you mind?” The murmuring increased.

Ware stepped forward, placed a hand on his elbow and leaned over to speak softly in his ear. “Please, Mr. Hamilton – Vern – there’s no need to be rude. These people have put a great deal of time and effort into this. Let them have their celebration; Heaven knows they have little enough opportunity.”


Part VI coming Friday!

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Friday, October 5, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part IV

Ethan was gone when Vernon arrived. He leaned back against the wall and waited, rubbing his eyes and trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. His friend’s nameplate beside the door stared at him. He glared back. Just one hint, some sort of warning about the town, Ethan. That’s all it would have taken. How could you let this happen to us? Vernon thumped his head against the wall and fumed, his anger building the longer he waited. Red tinted the edges of his vision.

The double doors opened and Ethan stepped through, his eyes locked on a sheaf of papers. Vernon straightened and folded his arms. Ethan looked up, spotted him and smiled. “Hey, bud. Come on in.” He pointed into his office. “Got any news for me about that press?”

“Yeah,” he replied curtly and reached into his back pocket. He tossed the wrench on the desk. “I’d say whoever sent that maintenance guy out here last month owes us a complete rewiring.”

Ethan picked the tool up and slowly turned it in front of his face. “This was causing our problems?”

“Yep.” Vernon ground his teeth. “It was rattling around at the bottom of the machine and getting knocked around when the press dropped. It’d connect with the wires and ground them out. I guess this last time around, it finally crossed between the two and shorted the whole thing.”

“Good work.” He glanced at the paper again. “Tomorrow, I’d like you to take a look at a vacuum mold. It’s not working right.”


Frowning, Ethan folded his hands and rested his chin on them. “You OK?”

“I was wondering…” he began. I was wondering why you sent us there to die. But he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. It sounded so stupid all of a sudden, and blurting out accusations like that would only threaten his job. He couldn’t afford for that to happen. Neither could Raymond. His anger sputtered and died. Heaving a sigh, he muttered, “I was wondering if I could knock off early and get home.”

“Of course! Go home, and for God’s sake, get some rest. See you bright and early tomorrow.”

“See ya,” he mumbled. It’s got to be more bright than early. On the way out, he stopped at a locker assigned to him when he walked in this morning and retrieved the brown sack lunch Ware had given him. Paper crinkled as he unrolled the top and peered inside. Two halves of a hefty roast beef sandwich lay under a small bag of chips. Vernon’s stomach rumbled.

He polished off the chips and a quarter of the sandwich before ever reaching the car. The rest of the food disappeared by the time he left the parking lot and turned onto Loop 286. As he approached Highway 271, he noticed a hardware store at the corner. A sign out front proclaimed it “Callahan & Son.” Patting the wad of bills in his pocket, Vernon slammed on the brakes and whipped into the lot. A horn blared behind him. He looked back at the highway and saw a middle finger pointed high in the air above the roof of a pickup. He killed the engine and went inside.

A small bell tinkled overhead as he pushed the door open. Vernon wandered the aisles, gazing listlessly at screws, nails, hammers and wallpaper until an elderly man shuffled up beside him. At least a foot shorter, age had bent him further so that he had to twist his neck and cock his head to look Vernon in the eye. He wore a blue and white striped apron with large pockets on the front. Black stitching spelled out “Theron” on the left breast. Vernon wondered if this was Callahan.

“Help you, sir?” He spoke in a soft croak.

“Uh, I’m looking for…um…” Vernon shook his head, trying to think straight. “Flashlights. I need flashlights. Oh, and batteries, too.”

Theron nodded and shambled off. Vernon followed with a slight smile. Odd as it looked, the clerk’s arthritic gait carried him with deceptive speed, seeming to cross the tortured linoleum floor in great stretches whenever a doorknocker or ceiling fan or power tool snagged Vernon’s attention for a moment. He constantly found himself having to increase his speed to catch up. Then Theron disappeared.

Rounding a corner, he found the old store clerk with thumbs hitched into his apron, standing in the last aisle next to a great stack of shelves bearing what had to be every type of flashlight known to man. Batteries hung in plastic blister packs at the far end. It was, he decided, one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen.

“Good thing I found you,” Theron rasped. “The way you were going, you would have spend most of the afternoon in here wandering around.”

That would have been fine with me, Vernon thought. Aloud, he said: “Thanks a lot. This is just what I was looking for.” The old man nodded and shuffled off to some other distant corner of the hardware store.

Fingers caressing the middle shelf, he gazed at the flashlights, studying each one with the care of a cop selecting a new sidearm. Small ones, he dismissed right away. No way those things would do any good out there. Several plastic ones joined the “no” list almost as quickly. Too cheap; can’t depend on something like that. One by one the candidates fell, until he found himself staring at a group of seven lights lined up on the top shelf like soldiers guarding a castle wall. Each one bore a sizable price tag, but even the weakest looked to have the power of his light at home. Which one? He tapped the bulge of money in his pocket.

Unable to decide, he finally grabbed all seven and hugged them to his chest. A virtual mountain of D-cells joined them.


Part V coming Monday!

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part III

The tour ended next to a pair of drop presses. One of the machines was running, its operator feeding it sheets of plastic while large weights slammed down, forcing them into wide, shallow bowls. The other sat still, forlorn and quiet with an odor of ozone coming from somewhere inside. form abbyy

“This is it,” Ethan said. “Once school starts up, we’re focused mostly on the Christmas trees, as you can see, but we keep a couple running on pools to stock up for the summer. We need this one back up as soon as possible.” He pointed Vernon to a rolling toolbox standing nearby. “Everything you need should be in there. If not, ask one of the guys or come find me. I’ll be around here somewhere.”

“Sure thing.” Vernon walked around the bright red toolbox and found his name stenciled on the lid. He flipped it open, retrieved a couple of adjustable wrenches and a reversible screwdriver and walked to the silent machine. “What’s wrong with you?”

The question reverberated as he worked, unscrewing an electrical access panel to get at the guts. It looked to need rewiring, and the insulation had worn in places, but he couldn’t find any scorch marks that would indicate the wires had crossed. What’s wrong with you? Ethan had bought that house and sent them there. Now half his family was gone. Do you think he did that on purpose? Vernon shook his head. Obviously, he couldn’t have known about the darkness in Jennings Grove, but he had noticed something strange there, and hadn’t even thought to give the Hamiltons a heads up. He should have told us there was something weird about the place. We could have… The thought trailed off. What could they have done? Found some other place offering free rent for half a year? Lived in the car? We would have been on guard, at least. That’d be something. Cheryl and Alexis might still be here if he’d given us a little warning. He shook his head again, trying to still the debate. It raged on until a hand dropped on his shoulder. Vernon jumped, dropped his tools and fell backwards off the press. His butt smacked painfully on the concrete floor.

He looked up to see the other press’ grizzled operator staring back down at him. “You alright, buddy?” he asked, extending a hand. Vernon took it and climbed back to his feet.

“Yeah. Just scared me a little.”

“Got any idea what’s wrong with her?” the man asked, jerking his head at the press.

“Not yet. Still looking.”

“Shoot. The way you were staring at it, I thought you’d found something.”

“Just thinking.” He rubbed his bottom, then scratched his head. “Did the thing go down all at once or did it run for a while first?”

The worker pulled his blue ballcap off and ran fingers through his blond hair. “A little of both, really.” He put the hat back on. “Today, we started it up, and she just died with a big sizzle and a sort of pop. But she’s been acting kind of wonky for about a month now, running in fits and starts.” He laughed.

“Something funny?”

“It’s just that the company spent a fair amount of money for the vendor to send a maintenance guy to come out and give her a quick overhaul last month. Looks like they should have sprung for the deluxe package, know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” He clapped the man on the arm. “Thanks a lot.”

“Don’t know that I did much, but you’re quite welcome.” He glanced at his watch. “Say, it’s lunch time. Want to knock off for a bit and grab something to eat?”

“Maybe some other time. I really want to see if I can get this machine up and running again.”

“Suit yourself.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m Bob Click.”

“Vern Hamilton,” he replied, shaking his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

As Bob walked off, Vernon sagged to his knees next to the press. Lunch time already? The day’s half gone. That meant he’d have to go back home before long. Maybe they’ll need me to stay late, or perhaps I can talk Ethan into going out for a drink or something. He grabbed his screwdriver and tried to open the bottom access panel. The flat head chattered around the screw for several seconds before he could force it into place. He took a deep breath and turned. The process repeated itself for the remaining three screws, but eventually got the panel loose. The culprit lay inside.

“Some overhaul,” he muttered, retrieving a large crescent wrench. Scorch marks marred the shiny metal surface, and it had melted more than halfway through in a few places. A quick glance inside the machine revealed similar burns along the case and bare wires that looked eaten through.

He sat on the concrete floor, turning the mangled wrench over and over in his hands. He felt like that tool. He’d been tossed into a world he didn’t belong, and now he found himself trying to bridge the darkness there with a normal life that contained swimming pools, Christmas trees and malfunctioning machines. The strain was already taking its toll. How much longer could he keep this up before something short circuited?

“Wow. That’s one messed up hunk of metal.”

Startled, Vernon dropped the wrench to the floor with a clang. He hastily climbed to his feet, dusting off his pants before stooping to retrieve the battered tool. He straightened and turned to face Bob, who was busy working a toothpick between his teeth. Bob pulled the wooden sliver from his mouth and pointed at the wrench. “That what done it?”

“Looks that way. I guess the maintenance guy got a little careless.” He scratched his head and took a deep breath. “You seen Ethan around?”


“Ethan…Mr. Roodschild.”

“Oh, him, yeah. I think I saw him going back to his office.”

“OK, thanks.” Tucking the wrench in his back pocket, he nodded at Bob and walked past him toward the far side of the shop.


Part IV coming Friday!


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