Monday, January 28, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part I

Snatching up a couple of flashlights, Vernon ran toward the back room. Light shone on them from the front, but a cold, hard grip tangled in his hair and jerked his head back as he dashed past the refrigerator. He grimaced and whipped his head from side to side. No use. He backed up a step, then leaned forward against the pull. The pressure on his scalp increased, and he could feel hair ripping. He swiped at the darkness behind his head and nearly knocked himself out with one of the flashlights. Vernon's skull rang from the impact as his thumb pressed the switch. The grip on his head weakened immediately. He stumbled to the back room in two lurching steps. He collapsed on the couch, chest heaving.

Raymond squirmed in his grip. Vernon sat the baby on his lap and bounced his knee. The scratches on his face didn't look quite as bad. The baby giggled, burped and spit up. Wiping the mess off Ray's blue onesie with his sleeve, Vernon yawned and held him close. Raymond laid his head on his father's shoulder as his eyes slid closed. He patted the infant's bottom and stared at the blank wall above the DVD player sitting on the desk. Too bad the TV got smashed. I could really go for a movie right about now. Anything to take my mind off... His gaze shifted to the window.

Despite the brightness of the room, the glass remained a flat black. He sat straighter and squinted. No, not flat. Night swirled past the window, occasionally pressing inside a couple of inches. Every so often, it would flatten and spread along the wall, only to shatter in the light. The few shards of darkness that survived scurried to join the shadows behind the desk like cockroaches. Hesitant tendrils slipped out from under the desk and whipped back. Vernon watched them a moment, then lifted his feet off the floor and set them on the couch. He turned back to the window. Does it know someone's in here? He found the idea hard to credit, but why else would it fight so hard to get in? Maybe it's not fighting at all. Maybe it's like water – just pushing against whatever holds it back until it flows through. He sighed and laid his head back on the back of the couch, wincing as his tender scalp hit the fabric. Whatever else the darkness might be, it wasn't mindless. It wanted them. But why? Food?

He shivered. He couldn't quite believe Jennings Grove was nothing more than a feeding ground for a nightmare. Even so, he still couldn't quite comprehend the native's willingness to remain, let alone live here. Ware called it "home," but could that really be enough to hold all these people here? It might. He got the feeling that trying to drag most of them away would lead to the fight of a lifetime. Great-Uncle Art would love this place.

Arthur Keele was something of a legend in Cheryl's family. As Houston expanded, most of the clan abandoned their various agricultural pursuits and started ventures in the city, including her grandfather. But the oldest son refused to sell. In fact, Art bought out his other siblings at outrageous prices to keep the family's land intact. "The city ain't going to swallow me, ya hear?" he'd tell anyone willing to listen. He held out for years, far longer than anyone thought he could. But the price he paid for the land beggared him. His wife left and took their children to Oklahoma with her family. Faced with starvation, he slowly parceled the land away, cursing his brothers and sisters with every acre he lost. He died on the original homestead with nothing but a few hundred acres that his children promptly sold to a developer. Cheryl's grandparents and great-aunts and –uncles sheepishly refused to talk about Art, but their children idolized him and passed their hero-worship to her generation.

Vernon loved the stories about Great-Uncle Art. His own family had consisted of nothing but his parents, who had never found much use in such sentimentality. They sold and bought what they needed with no thought of passing anything on to their children. He'd inherited something of their carpe diem attitude, which he supposed had helped lead to this predicament. If I'd thought to save more, maybe we could have held on to our own house instead of selling it just to survive. I wouldn't have had to take the first job that came along, and I wouldn't be here running for my life through an old house with bad wiring. Art certainly would have held on longer. Vernon got to talk with him once just a few months before he died. The old man had been drunk and more than a little senile, but he remained adamant about not letting anyone take him from the land. "This was our home," he kept saying. "The city ain't going to swallow it."

Could they really feel the same way about Jennings Grove? Vernon shook his head. Too many questions and no answers. He doubted it would make much difference, anyway, but it might be nice to know more about his mess he had gotten them in to.


Part II coming Friday!

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