Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part V

Shadows wrapped around his forearm as his hand closed on the photo album. With daylight all around, the darkness lacked the strength it would in a few hours, but this shelter gave it enough protection that pulling free proved quite difficult. He owed much of his predicament to an awkward position. Cold pressure on his wrist kept him on his tiptoes; he couldn’t rock back on his heels to get more leverage. Great. A stalemate. But for how long? Daylight was dying. The grip on his arm tightened slightly. Already? Vernon twisted as much as he could, looking for a way out. He frowned at the blinds on the window just behind and to his left, then lashed out with his foot. Pain burned his hip, and the kick fell short. Gritting his teeth, he turned until it felt as though his arm might give out. He hopped up and outward and kicked again. The blinds flew away from the glass. Sunlight skittered around the room. Wild bands flashed through the closet for a brief moment, and Vernon fell to the floor with a thud. Something struck the bed with a faint squeak of springs. Colors bloomed in his vision as his head thumped the hardwood. Fighting to clear his vision, he scrambled to his feet with one hand resting on the bed and the other braced against his knee. He looked up at the shadows swimming around the closet, took a deep breath and screamed.

The sound ripped through his throat. It echoed in the room’s confines. Fear and frustration welled up inside, fueling the primal roar. Everything I do, every move I make has to be a fight. I’m so tired of fighting. Don’t I deserve a break? Don’t we deserve some kind of peace, even if it’s just a minute? He screamed again and again, until all he could manage was an aggravated hiss. Finally, his rage spent, Vernon flopped on the bed. Something angular poked his bottom. He let it be for a minute. Breath rasped through a throat that felt as though it had been scraped raw. His hands trembled as he twisted around and yanked the item from underneath him. A large binder covered in gray faux-leather pulled free, the word “Album” stamped across the front in gold script. Vernon traced the letters with one trembling finger. He paused at the “m,” took a deep breath and flipped the cover open. A smiling couple in wedding finery greeted him on the first page. He stared, struggling to remember actually ever being that happy. What happened to us? All he could seem to recall was arguments broken only by chilly silences. Even in the worst of it all, there had been at least a few smiles and laughter. Alexis and Ray had made sure of that. It seemed they could always find joy in their children if not each other. But it seemed as though all those pleasant memories had been swallowed by the darkness in Jennings Grove. Perhaps since it hadn't been able to claim him, this creepy little town was turning him into a small piece of darkness from the inside out. He shook his head. Purely crazy -- but then again, what wasn't these days? He flipped the pages, watching the happiest day of his life rush by in a series of fading snapshots.

His perusal halted at photos in a hospital. A smile ghosted across his lips at the sight of Alexis squalling as doctors looked her over. That first cry had been a great relief. She was quiet at birth, and Vernon hadn't been able to get a good look at her with all the nurses and doctors swarming around mother and newborn. He'd been at least half afraid she had been stillborn. The next picture showed Cheryl, glowing, exhausted and proud with the sleeping baby in her arms. She was so beautiful. How could I forget that? Images flipped past: Alexis coming home. Vernon changing his first diaper with an exaggerated look of disgust on his face. New outfits, new toys and a new home. First words and first steps. And smiles abounding. Then Raymond came along. He cried from the start, Vernon recalled. They had taken fewer pictures with him so far, but the ones plastered in their album showed little in the way of smiles once they got home from the delivery, just exhaustion and -- to his eyes -- a growing frustration. The few grins he saw seemed tense and forced. My fault. I should have tried harder. He wiped tears from his cheeks with an angry swipe of his hand. A small voice said the self recrimination wasn't entirely fair; Cheryl had been difficult far beyond what their circumstances warranted. Surely she bore some of the blame. Shut up! Just shut up. He wiped his nose. I certainly didn't help any. I should have done more. Muttering to himself, Vernon bent back to the photo album. A loud boom reverbrated through the house. Vernon jerked upright. The album fell to the floor. He stood and walked to the front door as flurry of knocks rattled the glass in their panes.

"What?” he snarled, yanking at the door. It stuck in the frame. Grasping the knob in both hands, he pulled harder. The door wrenched free with a squeak and thudded into the wall. “What is it?” he shouted in Travis Ware’s face.

“Calm down, Mr. Hamilton.” The mayor spoke in a low, firm voice that held more than a touch of aggravation. “We need to talk.” He started to step inside. Vernon shot an arm out and grabbed the door frame, barring his way.

“We can talk out here just fine, thank you.”

Travis frowned. “There’s no need to be rude, Mr. Hamilton. Now, if you’ll let me inside...”

“Rude? Rude?” Vernon laughed wildly. “What’s so polite about showing up at my house and trying to knock the door down?” He choked on the laughter, coughed and tried to squash the hysteria threatening to escape. “I--” His voice cracked like a teen’s. Vernon cleared his throat and tried again. “I said we can talk out here. Spill it or go away.”

Lifting one eyebrow, Travis shifted his stance as if to push his way inside. When Vernon made no effort to move, he shrugged and folded his arms. “Very well,” the mayor muttered. He coughed and spoke up: “We need to talk about you shirking your responsibilities and taking advantage of the Williams’ generosity.”

“My what?”

“Don’t act all innocent, Mr. Hamilton. If you’re going to sit here and play hooky from work, the least you could do is take care of your own son instead of foisting him off on Kateri with some lame excuses.”

"Lame excuses?" A giggle escaped his lips. "So now I'm ditching work and abandoning my kids just so I can sit here and relax? Just kickin’ it in Jennings Grove, is that it?” With an effort, he forced a frown. This really isn’t that funny, anyway. “Is that really what you think?” Travis lifted both eyebrows and pursed his lips. “Holy cow, you do, don’t you? You’re just warped enough to believe that.” Vernon laughed and slapped his knee. Not funny. But it’s so messed up, it’s either laugh or cry. And I’ve done enough crying for awhile. Splinters poked his fingers as he gripped the doorframe harder to keep from smacking that indignant, smug face in front of him.

“I don’t see anything funny about this.”

“Of course you don’t,” Vernon broke in. “You’ve lived your whole life in a B-grade horror movie. Everything about this weird, creepy little town of yours is perfectly normal to you.” He straightened and poked Travis in the chest. The mayor’s eyes widened, and his mouth opened and closed as searching for a proper response. Vernon didn’t give him the chance. He picked up pace and volume as he continued. “That’s your problem. This is your whole world, and you refuse to consider anything outside of it. Y’all just say, ‘Get over it and get moving.’ I got news for you, buddy -- normal people don’t work that way. I’m not here goofing off, and I’m not trying to abandon my child or my responsibilities. I’m trying to save whatever’s left of my sanity so I can take care of everything. The way things are going right now, I’m lucky I haven’t killed him.”

“Be that as it may, Kateri--”

“Kateri Williams agreed to watch Ray, and she accepted my reasons for leaving him there, regardless of what you think of them. So how about you butt out and mind your own business?”

“I am mayor--"

“‘Mayor,’ right. I believe the first night here, you used the word ‘unofficial.’ Jennings Grove’s not incorporated, is it? I haven’t seen any city limit signs. That means no real government -- and no real mayors. But even if you were, that doesn’t give you the right to stick your nose into every little thing that goes on around here.” The sound of an engine and crunching gravel reached his ears. Vernon stepped back and swung the door partway shut. “I think it’s time you leave. I’m expecting company.”

Travis’ eyes widened. “At this hour? Are you nuts?”

Vernon looked past him and noted with a sort of dull horror that the sun was well on its way toward the horizon. He kept his face smooth and shrugged. “He can stay the night, then.” A car door slammed in the driveway. “You really need to go.”

“Have it your way, Mr. Hamilton. But we’re going to talk about this later. This isn’t over.”
The mayor tromped down the steps and made his way across the yard. He gave Ethan a wide berth and continued on his way home. “No,” Vernon told his retreating back. “I don’t think it is.”

Part I of Chapter 12 soon!

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