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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Friday, January 9, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part II

“Time to get moving, Mr. Hamilton. Don’t want to be late for work.” Kateri had one arm wrapped around Ray, trapping him against her chest and holding the bottle in his mouth. He sucked greedily at the formula.

“Oh. Yeah.” He stood and glanced around the room. “Work. Oh, boy.” Tears started in his eyes. “I don’t know...” He sank to the chair and buried his face in his hands. “I’m sorry.” Even muffled, he hated the whining tone of his voice. But he couldn’t seem to moderate it. “It’s just too much right now...”

She patted his shoulder. “It’s alright. It’s hard for those of us born here, too. But you’ll get used to it. I promise.” The hand left his back. Her footsteps pattered away into the kitchen, where he heard the refrigerator door open and shut. She walked back into the living room with a rhythmic thumping as she burped the baby. “Think you can make it to the office today?” Vernon shook his head. Kateri nodded and carried Ray into the bedroom. Her arms were empty when she came back. “He’s on the bed. If you’re going to stay home, I’m going to leave the little fellow here with you. I’ve got schoolwork to catch up on. Can’t seem to get it done when I’m watching Ray. He’s too cute to leave alone.”

Vernon wiped his nose on his arm and climbed to his feet. “OK. If that’s what you need to do. I’ll just stay here and take care of Ray and try to clear my head.”

“That’s a good idea, Mr. Hamilton. Take it easy, and I’m sure everything will be better in the morning.”

“I hope so,” he muttered. Clearing his throat, he raised his voice and dredged up a weak smile. “Thanks for all your help. I don’t know what we’d do without you right now.”

“Glad to do it.” She walked to the door and stepped out on the porch. “Y’all take care. I’ll see you later.”

Sitting back down, Vernon stared at the phone after she left. He glanced periodically at Ray waving his little arms and legs in the air. What was I going to do? He knew it was something important, but the details eluded him. A fog drifted through his mind; thoughts seemed familiar, but their shapes were obscure and distorted. What did Kateri say? Wasn’t there someone I needed to call? Because I wasn’t going to... “Work,” he blurted. Raymond laughed in his nest of sheets and blankets. “I gotta call work.” He paused as he reached for the handset. “Ethan’s going to love this,” he muttered. But what choice did he have? He couldn’t work in this condition. He wasn’t sure how he was going to take care of his son. Vernon’s eyes slid toward the bedroom. The baby’s movements had slowed. He yawned. Vernon smiled. Cheryl should see this. Where is she? He opened his mouth to call for his wife, then snapped it shut. The fog thickened and swirled with his confusion. Tears leaked down his cheek as memory surfaced. She was gone, of course, along with their little girl. How could he forget that? He watched Raymond drift off to sleep. Vernon stared until his aching shoulder brought his attention around. He frowned at the hand hovering over the telephone. Wasn’t I going to call someone? Somebody important? He puzzled over that until the phone rang.

Startled, his hand jerked back as if the phone had grown scorching hot. It blared at him, demanding an answer even as it rebuked him for making it wait so long. He reached out hesitantly and picked up the handset, drawing it to his ear. “Hello?” His voice sounded hollow and cracked, as if it echoed down a concrete pipe.

“Vern? Is that you?” Concern filled Ethan’s voice from the other end. Machinery banged in the background.

“Um.” Vernon tried to clear his throat. “Yeah.” Better.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. Fine, fine. Just... fine.”

“Well, then, why aren’t you here? You should have clocked in hours ago.” Agitation edged concern out of his tone.

“Hours?” Vernon laughed. “Good one, Ethan. Look, I know, I’m a little late, but...”

“‘A little late’?” Now he sounded angry. “Vern, it’s nearly eleven o’clock. I’m not in the mood to be playing games here.”

“It’s eleven?” Raymond whimpered and squirmed at the near-shout. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Nope.” Concern surfaced again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Not really.” Vernon sighed. “I can’t think. Everything’s just so fuzzy. It’s like someone hit me upside the head with a rubber mallet or something. It’s all just so weird right now with Cheryl gone and everything.”

“It’s okay. I get it. Take the day off. Try to pull yourself together. I’ll come by tonight. How’s that?”

“That’s fine. I appreciate it. I really do.”

There was a pause on the other end, then Ethan spoke in a quiet rush: “Look, Vern, you know you won’t get paid for today, right? I mean, I want to help, but you haven’t been here long enough to accrue any sick leave, and there’s some rules I just can’t break.”

“I know. It’s okay,” Vernon cut him off. “I just appreciate you giving me the time.”

“Alright, then. You take care, and I’ll see you later.”

“See ya.” He set the phone down. In the bedroom, Ray fussed and twisted on the bed. Vernon walked to the door to get a closer look. The boy hadn’t woken up yet, but his brow was furrowed in a frown. Vernon walked to the kitchen.

He found a bottle on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Formula sloshed around the bottom half inside the dark yellow plastic. Vernon grabbed it, shut the door and went to the microwave. He popped the bottle in, punched a few numbers and hit START. He watched it spin a moment. Slapping his forehead, he pulled the microwave open and grabbed the bottle, twisting the top off. Don’t want to melt the nipple, idiot. He slapped the top down on the counter, and the bottle went back in the microwave. Vernon leaned on the counter and listened to the appliance hum. His eyes closed, head resting on the cabinet. He felt like that bottle -- going round and round without actually getting anywhere. And things were getting hotter all the time. How much longer can I keep this up? How long before I break down completely? He let himself drift.


Part III of Chapter 11 coming next week!

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