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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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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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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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part I

Water swirled down the drain. Vernon watched it flow from the kitchen faucet, an endless stream that vanished almost as soon as it hit the sink. That’s me, he thought, staring at the lukewarm flow. A yellow plastic bottle tapped slowly against his thigh. The nipple sat on the counter next to a can of formula. I keep going and going, but I never get anywhere. Water gurgled down the pipes. He had no idea how long he’d been standing here. I should get the bottle ready. Ray’ll wake up any minute. But he remained still. It seemed safest that way. Everything he’d tried lately had led to disaster. He’d moved his family here, and now half of them were gone. He tried rescuing them, but had only succeeded in damaging the house and risking his son. Better not to move. If he didn’t act, there wouldn’t be any consequences. They’d stay safe that way. Tears trickled down his cheeks to join the small torrent.

“No,” Vernon growled. He swiped at his face with his free hand hard enough to make fresh tears start. He wondered if he had given himself a black eye. I can’t fall apart now. I’m all Ray has. Got to keep going and start making smarter decisions. He jammed the bottle underneath the faucet. Once it filled up, he cut the water off and brought the bottle to eye level. He tipped it over and let some dribble out until six ounces remained. If Ray didn’t eat it all, he could put it in the refrigerator for later. Vernon set it on the counter and padded through the living room to the bedroom door.

Raymond lay on his side, eyes closed with a small smile. Tears running once more, Vernon turned away. He caught sight of the bulging wall. The rope was still tied to it. Cool autumn air blew in through the open door and window. It nearly got me, didn’t it? He ran his fingers across the fractured wood in the doorframe. It came so close. A large splinter stabbed his index finger. He jerked it back with a hiss. Vernon looked back at the baby on his bed and stuck the injured digit in his mouth. He tasted blood. He stepped out on the porch and spat. Pink spittle landed on the boards. The copper tang remained.

Vernon’s lips twisted. He lifted his finger. Red dripped from the wound. He shuddered. The motion became a sharp contraction in his gut. Vernon dropped to his knees as his throat constricted. What little he’d been able to eat the evening before came up and sprayed across the porch. The noise woke Raymond, who started crying. Vernon climbed to his feet and wiped his mouth on the hem of his shirt, leaving a yellow-green smear. He staggered inside. By the time he reached the bed, his son had nearly rolled off. Ray lay on the edge, fists waving as he voiced his frustration. The cries cut off as Vernon picked him up and balanced him on his shoulder, making shushing noises and patting his bottom. The diaper squished heavily. Too much longer, and he’d have wet the bed. Something slurped beside his ear. Vernon craned his neck. The baby was sucking on his fist.

“Hungry, buddy? We’ll get you fed just as soon as we get that diaper off you.” He twisted, running his gaze over furniture and floor. “Where is that thing?” he muttered. Hadn’t he just seen it a minute ago? He marched around the room. His head jabbed forward every time he looked in a corner or around the arm of a chair. He couldn’t see it anywhere. He made another, frenzied circuit of the room. Where? He collapsed in his recliner and sobbed in frustration. He couldn’t even get this right. He turned his face to Ray’s side and wept into his onsie. It didn’t take the baby long to join in with a series of siren-like wails.

A feather-light touch brushed the back of his neck. He jerked upright and nearly dropped Ray as he craned his neck over one shoulder then the other, trying to see who was behind him. Something tugged at his son. Vernon tightened his grip and jumped from the chair with a shouted “No! You can’t...I won’t let...”

“Mr. Hamilton, chill. It’s just me.”

Backed into a corner, Vernon stared out at the room until his gaze settled on Kateri. She stood with arms outstretched, palms up. She looked like someone trying to calm a vicious dog. They stared at each other for a moment; Vernon broke eye contact first as something warm spread across his chest. He lifted Ray away and frowned at the wet stain on his shirt and the baby’s onsie. He glanced around for a diaper.

“I’ll take him, Mr. Hamilton. You can go ahead and get ready for work.”

“Work? Oh, yeah.” His brain felt fuzzy. He let Kateri take Raymond. He kept his eyes on the floor, unsure if he still needed to look for anything. Besides, it was too much effort to lift his gaze. The babysitter’s footsteps and cooing noises faded into the kitchen. Vernon shuffled to the recliner and slowly sank into the seat. He rested his chin on one hand and stared out the window, barely conscious of the cooling, soaked shirt sticking to his ribcage. A flock of blackbirds wheeled, landed and took off again in random patterns. His thoughts followed, fragmenting and spiraling in incomprehensible patterns. Vernon nodded. He shook his head. Got to get going. His gaze drifted back to the birds outside. I'll get up in just a minute. His eyelids drooped.

A firm hand gripped his shoulder and shook him back to the moment. “Huh?” Vernon rubbed his eyes. “Whuh?” clonedvd mobil key downloads


Part II of Chapter 11 coming next week!


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