Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part III

Raymond brought him crashing back with a wail. Vernon straightened and turned toward the bedroom. He stopped, wrinkling his nose at an acrid stink. His gaze rounded the kitchen, seeking the source. He sniffed. It didn’t smell like food gone bad. Had some wiring blown? He spun on one heel, torn between going to comfort the crying baby and staying to track down a possibly dangerous emission. Another circuit revealed no source. Vernon shrugged, stepped past the buzzing microwave and walked to the bedroom. Ray stopped crying the instant he lay against his father’s shoulder. His even, slow breathing a few moments later signaled he had gone to sleep. Vernon hugged him closer and smiled. Figures. Guess I didn’t need that bottle after all. His head snapped up. He dashed back to the kitchen.

A thin trail of smoke arose from the microwave. Inside, baby formula boiled furiously inside a bent, twisted bottle. He punched the door button, halting the time at just over fifteen minutes. How long did I leave it in there? he thought as he grabbed molten plastic. His teeth clenched to hold in the shriek that tried to rip free of his throat. He hurled the bottle to the floor. Steaming liquid sprayed across the tattered linoleum. The bottle deformed further at the impact and slid to a halt underneath the table. Whimpering around burned fingers seeking comfort in his mouth, Vernon went to the living room and sat on the edge of the recliner. I could have set the house on fire and not even known it. A shiver ran up his spine. Rather than subside, it spread down his limbs and grew into tremors that chattered his teeth and bounced Ray around on his shoulder. He stood, hoping to walk some of the energy off. He wobbled and pitched forward, nearly dropping Raymond. The baby jerked awake and started crying. That’s it. I can’t do this. Not today. Once his steps evened enough that he could be sure of his destination, Vernon made his way to the bedroom, fished his keys and wallet off the dresser and walked out onto the porch.

The door refused to close. It banged to an abrupt halt inches from the frame. He figured it would be difficult with the damaged wall, but the gap was wider than it should be. He looked down and saw the rope still tied there. He shook his head and shrugged. What’s the difference? Who’s going to break in out here, anyway? He marched down the steps.

His trembling had decreased in frequency by the time he reached the Toyota, ganging together into periodic spasms that made it difficult to secure the belt in Raymond’s car seat. The baby, now quiet, seemed fascinated with the chattering clasp. Vernon finally got it buckled and collapsed into the driver’s seat with a sigh. He stared at the key as it jerked in his grip a couple of times, then rammed it home before his fingers could twitch again. He noted with relief that the fit seemed to be passing. I don’t need to drive off the road. The engine caught on the first try. He dropped the transmission into gear and headed down the driveway.

Despite his returning control, Vernon drove slowly on the gravel roads of Jennings Grove. His hands spasmed a few times on the trip, sending the station wagon toward the ditch. He jerked the wheel back each time before the tires could cross the boundary between gravel and grassy culvert. Sweat poured off his forehead and soaked his shirt by the time he came to a stop outside the Williams’ brick home and killed the engine. He sat for a moment, twitching and staring at the house. When he felt he had gained a measure of control, he took a deep breath, popped the door open and climbed out. Raymond reached up as the door opened and Vernon took Ray out of the car seat. All the twitching seemed to have stopped aside from a fluttering eyelid, and that petered out as he stepped onto the porch. Vernon sighed in relief. I want her to take him for the day, not run screaming to CPS. He rapped his knuckles on the door. Would anyone out here even go to CPS? I wonder what happens to the kids whose parents don’t make it. He pressed an ear to the door, but couldn’t hear anything inside. Frowning, he knocked again. What would he do if Kateri wasn’t home? Aside from his Camry, there weren’t any cars parked in the driveway. Vernon shook his head. She said she planned to stay home and study. She had to be here. He hammered the door.

Locks snapped back from the other side, halting his hand in midair. The door swung open. Kateri leaned against the jamb with folded arms and a scowl on her face. “What do you want?”

“Uh, I know I said I was going to watch him today --”

“You’re right. You did. And I’ve got work to do. So what do you want?”

“Look, I just can’t do this. I can’t stop twitching. I can’t think straight...”

“Try harder, Mr. Hamilton.” Vernon felt his jaw drop. She gave a tight smile at his expression. “What did you expect me to say? He’s your kid. Much as I like him, I can’t take care of him all the time. You’re going to have to man up and take some responsibility yourself.” She looked him up and down. “Looks like the twitching’s stopped, anyway. Good-bye Mr. Hamilton. If you go to work tomorrow, I’ll see you then.”

She straightened and started to swing the door shut. Vernon hitched Raymond up on his shoulder and slapped the door back open with his free hand. Kateri’s eyebrows rose. She pursed her lips and stood with a fist on her hip.

“Man up? You’ve lived here your whole life.” Anger tightened his voice. “I’ve been here three days. I’ve seen stuff out of horror movies take half my family. I’m losing my mind here, and you’re telling me to man up? I just melted a bottle and nearly burned the house down. It may be Ray next; I’ve lost track of how many times I nearly dropped him this morning. Is that what you want?”

Kateri’s mouth opened. From the look on her face, she planned to rip him a new one. She never got the chance. The shuddering returned in one great paroxysm that shook his entire body. The babysitter dove to her knees and caught Raymond as he slipped out of Vernon’s arms. The baby laughed, and Kateri hugged him tight as she climbed back to her feet. “Alright, Mr. Hamilton. You go home and pull yourself together. I’ll watch Raymond. Call me when you’re ready.” She gave him a hard look. “But you’d better do it quick. I meant what I said, Mr. Hamilton. Jennings Grove isn’t the place for people who won’t pull their own weight.”
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Part IV coming next week!


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