Monday, February 16, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part IV

Vernon bit back a retort. He lowered his head to hide the scowl and scuffed his feet until he heard the door shut with a thunk. He lifted his head then and glared at the house for a moment before marching back to his car. His hands vibrated as he dug the keys out of his pocket and dropped into the driver’s seat. “Man up”? “Pull your own weight”? What is wrong with these people? Jennings Grove isn’t a place for anybody who’s sane. Or anyone who has other options. He turned the ignition over and banged his head on the steering wheel a couple of times. There’s got to be a way out of this. Rubbing his forehead, he put the car in gear and turned around. Gravel crunched and popped under his tires as he drove. He was barely aware of his surroundings until he found himself back in the driveway.

He got out of the car and trudged up the steps. Rope still lay on the porch, one end tied between the window door and the other snaking across to the steps. It looked like some monstrous dog had been leashed to the house and tried to tear it down as it made good on its escape. Ethan’s going to have a lot to say about that. He laughed. What’s he going to do? Evict me? He stepped inside, went to the kitchen and retrieved a bread knife. Back on the porch, he paused and watched sunlight play along the long, serrated blade. Cheryl would kill me if she saw me doing this with one of her good knives, he thought as he bent to saw at the thick rope just behind the knot. The strands parted easily enough, but the arm-think cord took time to cut through. Pain lanced through his shoulders by the time he straightened and yanked the rope free. He knuckled his back and set about rolling it between his elbow and palm. He lost himself in the slow rasp-slap of the moving coils until his hand slipped free and the end struck his arm. Vernon blinked and looked out at the yard.

The sun sat noticeably lower in the sky. He shrugged and dumped the coiled rope in the corner of the porch. Turning around, he examined the wall again. It didn’t look as bad without the rope drawing attention to the bulge. A quick tug on the door, and it wedged shut. It refused to latch no matter how hard he tugged, but at least it wouldn’t open the house to the wind. The window was a different matter. Vernon pushed and pulled until the muscles in his arms ached, but it would not shut all the way. A crack about an inch high remained open where the frame twisted outward. Better than nothing. Maybe I can nail some plastic up until I can fix the thing. He stepped back and assayed the structure with a critical eye. She was still a battered old bird. But with the door and window working -- however imperfectly -- it at least looked something like a home instead of a neglected hulk. Vernon swallowed the sudden bile that rose in his throat. A sound that was half whimper and half bitter laugh escaped his lips.

“Home,” he muttered. “Good one.” We had a real home, once. Even with Cheryl griping and nagging me half to death and Alexis annoying the snot out of me, we had a home. He sniffled and shook his head, sending teardrops pattering to the wooden porch. He stumbled blindly into the house.

Still trying to blink back tears, Vernon rammed his forehead against the doorframe leading to the bedroom. He paused inside his room and pursed his lips, trying to decide where to look first. He yanked open a few dresser drawers and found only clothing. A nightstand beside the bed held books and a several nail clippers. Why do we have so many of those things? Shaking his head, he sat on the bed and looked around the room. Still one place he hadn’t tried. Vernon heaved a sigh, rolled across the bed and slid to his feet in front of the closet. The door remained open. Sunlight pouring through the windows drove shadows to the corners. He took a hesitant step forward and peered up at the shelf overhead. Even with the beams lancing in around him, shadows sulked along the shelf like sullen mongrels driven to the last corner of their territory. They shifted and writhed, hiding some objects while revealing others. Three of his wife's shoeboxes jutted in front of him. He wasn't sure if they held photos or scrapbooking supplies or even some fancy footwear she'd never found the right occasion for. There was no telling with Cheryl. The darkness eddied, obscuring the boxes and exposing a pair of roller skates. Vernon reached up and snatched them down before the black tide could wash over them -- or his hands -- again. Scuffed white leather tried to gleam through years of wear. He fingered a long scratch long the arch of the right skate. Cheryl had nearly broken her arm that. It had been their third date, and she stuck her tongue out at him when he asked if her flailing might be due to the fact she didn’t really know how to skate. She’d hit a curb and fell hard to the ground.

Tears fell as he sat down on the bed and stroked the leather shoes. The last time he saw the skates had been just before they moved. Vernon had found them in the bottom of the baby’s closet. Dirt had turned them gray, and dust made the wheels hard to turn, except for one on the heel of the left skate, which had seized entirely. That happened all too often in the last few months. His hand whipped underneath the hardened plastic. The wheel spun freely on its bearings. Vernon remembered waving them in his wife’s face on his way to the trashcan. Why did I throw them away? Fighting, probably, and not speaking to one another. She fished them out and had them fixed. He wanted nothing more right then than to put his arms around Cheryl and hug her until her spine popped. Vernon tossed his head back and sighed. A glance at the closet showed the shifting darkness had uncovered another treasure, the one he’d been looking for. How long had it been sitting there while he played with his departed wife’s skates? Vernon bounced off the bed and lunged for the shelf.

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