Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chapter 12: Fourth Night, Part II

Vernon frowned and nodded. He climbed out of the recliner, waited for Ethan to stand and lead him into the kitchen. He grabbed a flashlight off the table and pointed it downward over the edge. “Look down there,” he said, pointing at the floor. His foot sat near the leg. A few cautious, dark strands investigated his laces. Ethan nodded. Vernon clicked the light on. Shadows shrank away from the sudden light, but the glare birthed a strong shadow from the tabletop onto his foot. Unable to move up his leg, it contracted and clamped on his foot. Vernon stumbled as his foot slid under the table. His knee straightened and popped; his thigh bumped into the wood. Vernon hissed in pain and tried to draw back, but it wouldn’t let go. He swung the light down his leg. The beam slashed through the shadow, which parted and retreated under the table.

Panting, he stood up straighter, leaning to the left to favor his injured leg. Vernon clicked off the light and turned to Ethan with raised eyebrows. His friend responded with a frown. “Slip on some water or something?”

“What? You didn’t see the shadows moving?”

“All I saw was you waving that light around and trying not to fall.”

A sharp retort nearly escaped his lips before Vernon could bite it back. Trying to convince him, not get in a shouting match. Besides, it probably did look that way from where he’s standing. Maybe he needs to see it for himself. But he didn’t want to put Ethan in any danger. He sighed and ran his gaze around the room. His eyes stopped on the upper cupboard next to the sink. That might do the trick. He absentmindedly wiped his hand on his jeans and stepped across the room, motioning for Ethan to follow.

Darkness oozed back as he opened the cabinet doors. Vernon eyed the deeper shadows behind the other cupboards to the side. Probably not a real threat – there certainly wasn’t enough room to drag Ethan into even if he was alone – but who knew what mischief they could achieve? He flipped the other doors open and looked again. Too much light. He shut all the doors but one. Fainter than before, but they still looked fairly strong. He waved the flashlight at the shelf a couple of times for good measure. That should work. “Stick your hand in there.”


“You’ll see in a minute.”

Ethan shrugged. He stared at the shelf for a moment before reaching in up to his elbow. Vernon flashed the light inside one more time then stepped back. Ethan shook his head with a bemused grin and stood still a moment. He opened his mouth as if to say something; his lips curled into a grimace and he tried to pull his arm back.

“Wait!” Vernon lowered his voice and coughed into his fist. “Just wait a sec.” Ethan shuddered, but slowly reached back inside. “Now take a look in there and tell me what you see.”

Squinting, he leaned forward. Vernon could see his arm trembling as he studied the interior of the cabinet. Whatever he saw in there held his attention quite securely. Aside from his eyes scanning side to side and a periodic twitch of his head, Ethan remained stock still. Vernon held his breath. Is this it? He’s acting like he sees something. I wish I knew what he was thinking. He took a step, then stopped himself. Don’t need to interrupt. Just let him figure it out on his own. Shouldn’t be too long now, anyway. He leaned back on the counter, fidgeting with the flashlight. He suppressed a shudder at the memory of little shadows crawling over his hand. How much longer can he stand that? He flipped the flashlight end over end while he waited. He nearly dropped it when Ethan let out a sharp hiss.

“Something bit me!” Drawing his hand from the cupboard, Ethan leaned in closer, then shook his head and examined his index and middle fingers. Blood welled from three parallel cuts just below the nails. “Looks like I need to get an exterminator out here ASAP.”

“An exterminator? For what?”

“Looks like we’ve got some kind of infestation – mice, maybe rats and whatever was crawling up and down my arm a minute ago.”

“‘Whatever?’” His voice rose with incredulity.

“Yeah. Couldn’t get a good look at it. Not enough light; all I could see was something moving in the shadows.”

Vernon snorted. “Fine. I’ll give you all the light you need.” He flipped the doors open one by one, hard enough they bounced off each other, and shined the flashlight inside for good measure. Cups, bowls, plates and Tupperware gleamed back at them. “See anything in there to call an exterminator for?”

“Vern, calm down. With you making all that racket and flashing that light around, it’s no wonder they ran off.”

“What ran off, Ethan? What? Roaches? Rats? Spiders?” He walked closer and shoved the flashlight around the bottom shelf. “Where are they?”

“Like I said, ran off –”

“Oh, come on! Ran off where? There’s nothing in here, Ethan. You’d still be able to see some bugs, rat poop, something, anything. There aren’t even any spider webs.” Ethan shrugged and scratched his chin, but said nothing. Vernon sighed and nodded. “Fine. Have it your way. I guess I know what I have to do. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” He walked to the doorway into the back room and reached one arm around. He crooked a finger at his friend. “I’ll need you to come over here, though.”

“For what?”

“To make sure I don’t die.”

Ethan gave an exasperated laugh. “Sure thing.” He walked over and leaned on the refrigerator. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Vernon said and flipped off the lights in the back room.

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Part III of Chapter 12 coming soon!


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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chapter 12: Fourth Night, Part 1

Ethan Roodschild frowned at his coffee mug. He slouched back on the blue hide-a-bed, his gaze locked on the empty cup, motionless and silent except for periodic murmuring too quiet for Vernon to make out. He’s been doing that for better than half an hour. Why doesn’t he say something? Vernon fidgeted in his recliner, unable to take his eyes from his friend. If he can still be called that.

He had tried to hold back, but Ethan’s arrival had unleashed a torrent of words and bitterness that shocked even Vernon. After Ware’s visit, Vernon passed the remainder of his afternoon pacing through the house. He could feel the fog that had clouded his brain most of the day just waiting for a chance to come back. He found himself standing in the middle of the room staring at walls and windows several times. The only real solution seemed to lay in action. The fog refused to dissipate entirely, but as long as he was doing something, he could hold it at bay. So Vernon got moving. He checked every light and replaced the burnt-out bulbs in the back room. They lit when he flipped the switch. He breathed a sigh of relief and walked to the kitchen, leaving the light on behind him. In the hour and a half before Ethan knocked at the door, Vernon made at least a half-dozen circuits of the house, double- and re-checking bulbs and replacing three others that looked about to go out. He was pondering a fourth when a knock at the door interrupted him. Neither said a word as Vernon opened the door. Ethan stepped inside with a scowl for the damaged wall. His frown deepened as the door wedged shut with a wooden grinding noise. Instead of tearing into his wayward tenant, however, he simply sat on the love seat and watched as Vernon slipped into the kitchen to whip up a cup of instant coffee. He accepted the mug with a nod. Vernon sank into his chair and stared at his hands. What do I say? Where do I even begin? Then Ethan took the decision away with two simple words: “What’s up?”

A deep breath, and Vernon opened his mouth. He wasn’t sure what he intended to say. Perhaps an apology for the door or missing work. Maybe a comment about how his life was falling apart without his wife and daughter – carefully worded, of course. Or he could have just said that he didn’t know what to say. All perfectly good, safe ways to begin what would be a weird tale regardless of how he spun it. But what came out of his mouth was: “You killed my family.” Ethan’s eyebrows shot up at that, but he stayed silent while Vernon jabbed a finger his way and continued. “You knew this was a weird town. Why didn’t you say something? Even if we didn’t have any choice but to come here, some sort of heads up would have been nice. Cheryl and Alexis would still be here, and I wouldn’t be facing this nightmare alone. But no, you had to keep your mouth shut, and we paid the price.” Tears choked his voice. “Especially Cheryl and our little girl.”

“What happened to them?”

Vernon tried to ignore the question, tried to listen to the little voice whispering in his head that answering it would not end well. But his fear and frustration had found an outlet; he had the bit in his teeth and couldn’t stop now. He jumped from his chair and paced in front of Ethan’s seat. The words poured out in a torrent that offered every detail of the past few nights. Vernon told about their weird reception from Jennings Grove’s residents, the horror of losing Alexis and then his wife. He spoke of Cheryl’s final effort to save Ray and the subsequent nights of battles and narrow escapes. He showed every bruise and scrape he had gained in his struggles with the darkness. Finally, as he got to the morning’s fits and dropping Ray off with Kateri, the flood slowed and he forced himself to a stuttering halt. He dropped into his recliner, which answered with an internal sproing and a crack. Vernon ignored it, leaned back and stared at Ethan, waiting for the angry response. Instead, he got ignored. Say something, anything. Vernon glanced out the window. Night had fallen. He wondered what he would tell Ethan when it was time to go. It might solve a lot of problems if you just let him leave. Vernon shook his head. That wasn’t an answer.

“You know, this is a lot to take in,” Ethan said slowly. Vernon turned his gaze back on his boss and leaned forward in his chair. “You spin quite a tale, and you sure seem to believe it. But I got to tell you, I’m just not sure how to take all this.”

His eyes widened, and his jaw dropped. Vernon fell back, which set his seat to rocking. Ethan looked up at the squeaking springs with a small smile, but said nothing. Vernon closed his mouth and pushed on the floor with his feet. His gaze turned to the ceiling, he tried to let the swaying chair relax his nerves even as his mind raced ahead. Ethan almost sounded as though he believed the story, but that seemed rather unlikely. It’s not like this is the most believable story. I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me something like this. Is he playing with me? Or maybe just messing with my head? He chewed his lip. That’s not his style. He’s always been straight with me. Even if he thought I was completely deranged, he wouldn’t do that to me. So what is it? Vernon closed his eyes, tapping his thumbs together. No matter how hard he thought, he couldn’t find an answer that fit. He cracked an eyelid and snuck a glance at Ethan. He peered back with an expression that spoke of nothing but patience and hopeful expectation. He’d seen the same look on his friend’s face hundreds of times before while he waited for something to make sense. Is that it? Vernon sat up slowly. Metal inside the recliner squealed as he rose. Could it be that he wants to believe me, no matter how crazy it sounds? I just need to offer him some kind of… “Proof,” he said aloud. “You need some kind of proof.”

“It would be nice,” Ethan replied dryly.


Part 2 coming soon!

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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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