Friday, August 24, 2007

Chapter 2: An Odd Greeting, Part III

A man and woman in their mid-thirties strode by, the husband carrying a girl about Alexis' age. Vernon waved.

"Hey, how you doing? My name's Vern Hamilton. My wife and I just moved in." He turned and waved at the porch. "What's your daughter's name? We've got a little girl about her age."

The man stopped, but kept glancing about as if looking for some escape. His wife answered. "I'm Marilyn Thompson. This is Nick and our daughter Melinda."

"Pleased to meet you," Vern said.

"Likewise," Nick mumbled.

"So, how long have your folks lived here?"

Marilyn smiled. "Actually, Nick was born here. I moved here after we married seven years ago. Of course, his first wife and son were gone by then..." Nick's elbow in her ribs sent her stumbling sideways. "What? Oh. Right." She cleared her throat. "Sorry about that. I just get going and can't stop sometimes." She laughed. "Got to watch that. Don't want to lose track around here..."

Her husband spoke quickly, cutting her off. "I think we've taken enough of Mr. Hamilton's time, dear, and we need to get Melinda home."

"You're certainly not bothering me." Vern chuckled and turned to wave at his car and the lift gate still open in the back. "I've still got to unpack. It's not like I'm all that eager to get back to work."

When he turned back, the couple had already moved on.

He waved at another pair, a black couple walking with a sullen teenage girl in tow. The woman waved back, and her husband nodded in a friendly fashion, but neither halted or even slowed.

An elderly woman in a high-necked blue dress hobbled by. Vernon stepped up beside her and offered his arm.

"Why thank you, young man." She pat the white bun on the back of her head. "It's so nice to see someone with a few manners."

"Where's your husband, ma'am? Don't tell me a young thing like yourself isn't attached."

"Oh, you are a naughty one, aren't you?" She tittered. "Please, call me Pat."

"Alright, just so long as you call me Vern."

"It's a deal, Vern. And to answer your question, my Harold went into the night nearly twenty years ago. These days, I just sit at home and wait for my turn. Probably won't be long now."

"I doubt that." Did she say he went into the night? What kind of expression is that? "Isn't there anyone else around here who could help you?"

"I hate to be a bother. Besides, you know how it is. Most of them have their own families. Would do them any good to see me home and get stuck out here after dark themselves, now would it?"

"That's kind of heartless. It’s not like they could get lost out here, even in the dark. The town ain't that big."

"What kind of nonsense are you spouting?" Pat's head twisted sharply up at him. She adjusted her glasses and squinted. "Oh, that's right. You're new here, aren't you?"

Vernon nodded. "Just got here a little while ago. But what was all that about?"

"Oh, nothing. Just the foolish ramblings of an old woman. I'll probably be drooling on myself next." She stopped in front of a farm house with faded blue paint. "Well, this is my stop. Thank you for the help." She clasped his forearm. "You be careful and hurry on home, young man. I hope I get to see you again." And with that, she scurried into her house. Lights shone in the windows before she shut the door.

Shaking his head, Vernon walked back to his house. He tried to engage the few people he passed in conversation. Those who didn't ignore him outright pointed at the sky and hurried on past. When he reached the mouth of his driveway, he turned. Four more people passed without even glancing his way. That's it. I'm through being polite. When a middle-aged man in a suit and fedora walked by, Vernon snagged his arm and spun him around.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Release me at once. Can't you see how late it is?"

"Look, man, I'm sorry to be rude, but we just moved in and I can't hardly even get anyone to talk to me. I had heard this was a friendly little place, but so far, they're acting like we've got the plague or something. The ones I can get to say anything are crazy or something. I just walked an old woman to her house, and I swear, she's going senile or something. From the way she talked, you'd think it was my last night on Earth."

"You walked Ms. Erickson home?" His expression softened, and he smoothed his graying mustache with a thumb and forefinger. "That was kind of you. She doesn't have anyone to look after her anymore." He paused. "You say you just moved in? That'd make you the new family – the Hamiltons, wasn't it?"

"Yeah." He folded his arms. "Who are you?"

"My name is Travis Ware. I'm sort of the unofficial mayor around here."

He extended a hand. Vernon took it and gave it a quick shake. "Pleased to meet you. Would you like to come meet the family? Cheryl's kind of tired, but I'm sure she'd love to at least say hi, and Alexis always loves meeting new people. Just don't be surprised if she asks to spend the night with you. She's never met a stranger, and she might treat you like a long-lost grandfather or something."

"Really, Mr. Hamilton, I must be going..."

"Oh, come on. It's a Sunday, for crying out loud. I know these small towns like to roll up the streets at sunset, but this is ridiculous. What's going on around here? It's like everyone can't wait to get inside."

"Things in Jennings Grove are...complicated, Mr. Hamilton. I'd be more than happy to speak with you and meet your family in the morning, but right now, I really must get home. I suggest you do the same. It's almost dark, you know." He put a special emphasis on the last. Travis pulled free of his grip and started to leave, then turned back. "Your children don't have any outdoor pets, do they?"

"Huh?" He blinked in surprise. "No. Alexis has been asking for a dog, but we haven't had a chance to get one yet."

"Good." Travis nodded. Vernon frowned and watched him disappear into the deepening murk.
Part I of Chapter 3 coming Monday!

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Chapter 2: An Odd Greeting, Part II

He threaded his way through the kitchen and into one of the two bedrooms that took up the rest of the house. Alexis' twin bed had been set up and made, the pink comforter with its yellow flowers nearly blinding him as he walked by. A pale nightlight glowed in the wall. A short dresser stood in one corner, and her small, pink table and chairs in another. Boxes covered both.

A doorway led to his room, which was even more cluttered. He couldn't see the bed for all the clothing, and a haphazard stack of boxes nearly obscured the window. Shaking his head, he walked back into the living room and outside.

Ray slept in his mother's arms when Vernon walked out onto the porch. Cheryl, finally covered, had leaned over and was inspecting the brittle square tiles that covered the outside walls. "What kind of siding is this?"

Vernon bent down next to her. "Asbestos," he said after a moment. Running a finger across its surface, he added: "I think it's covered in lead paint."

"What?" she shouted. Raymond stirred, whined and fell back to sleep.

"It's fine," he said, pumping his hands in a calming gesture. "There's no danger as long as you don't start breaking it off." He glanced at the baby. Ray's likely to start crawling soon. "Or try to eat it. We'll need to keep an eye on him."

"Are you sure?" He nodded. She sighed. "Any more surprises?"

"Don't spend any more time than you have to in the bathroom," he said. "The water heater's not venting right. I'll call the landlord tomorrow."

"Wonderful." She shook her head, leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.

He scratched his neck. "Look, Cheryl, it was real nice of your brothers to load our stuff up and move it for us, but don't you think they could have been a little more careful about putting it up? And they ate everything we had in the fridge."

"We've already been over this, Vern, and you're right," she replied sharply. "It was nice of them. They didn't ask for any money, and if they want to take a little food, well, I think…"

What she thought remained a mystery as the bang of an opening door and a babble of voices cut her off. He glanced at his watch, which showed a few minutes past six.

"Church dismissed," he said. "You want to go meet the neighbors?"

"You go ahead, Vern. I'm tired, and I don't want to wake Ray up. I can meet them later."

"It's all right. I understand – neither one of us has gotten much sleep lately. I'll join you in a little bit." He walked down the gravel driveway and glanced over his shoulder. Cheryl had resumed rocking. He walked to the tree where Alexis was still swinging, hair and red skirt flying as she moved through the air. The white hose she refused to take off gleamed in the dying light.

"Hi, Daddy!" she called. "Watch me!"

He stood for a moment, arms folded. "I'm watching, sweetie. You're going high, aren't you?"

"I sure am." She leaned back. Rope creaked as she moved.

Vernon laughed. "Be careful. Make sure you don't throw yourself over the house."

"Oh, Daddy." She gave him one of Cheryl's favorite looks, head cocked to one side and an expression that assured him of his own idiocy. Her lips twitched and broke into a smile. "Push me!"

"Are you sure? Looks to me like you're going too fast already."

"Push me!"

"OK, OK. But just a minute." He walked behind her, ducking to avoid getting brained by the plank. Vernon backed up a step and reached out. His hands gently grasped the sides of the wood and heaved, sending the swing hurtling in its arc.

Alexis squealed and laughed. "Higher!"

He gave her another shove and stepped back. "That's all for now."

"Awww, man. I wanted you to push me more." Her voice grew and fell as she moved toward and away from him.

"I know, sweetie, but Daddy's got to go talk to some people. Tell you what, I'll push you first thing in the morning, OK?"dvd eros ramazotti torrent

"OK. Love you!"

"You, too." He blew her a kiss and smiled.

As he moved on, Vernon saw the congregation hadn't wasted any time in dispersing. A few stood silhouetted in the church doorway, but most had moved on. What cars had been in the parking lot were already gone. Some people had already passed his house by the time he reached the road. He watched the people as they headed home. Senior citizens looked to account for a little more than half of Jennings Grove's residents, with younger couples making up the rest. Regardless of age, everyone moved with the same brisk stride while eyeing the setting sun.

Part III coming Friday!


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Friday, August 17, 2007

Chapter 2: An Odd Greeting, Part I

Knuckling his back as he climbed out of the car, Vernon looked at the white house again and grunted. Even with the rebuilt porch and new windows, no amount of cosmetics could hide the fact that this was an old broad.

"The pictures didn't do this place justice. I'll bet it's at least sixty years old. Ethan should be paying us to live here."

His wife barked a laugh, pulled Raymond from his car seat and wrapped him in a yellow-and-blue-striped blanket. The baby's screams dwindled to whimpers that faded to nothing as she hugged him.

"I've got to feed him," she said, bouncing him on her shoulder. "Can you get Alexis and start unloading this stuff?"

"Sure." He opened his daughter's door and pushed the lever on her seatbelt. She squirmed in his grip until he swatted her leg. "Be still."

"I want Mommy," Alexis replied, arms folded and her bottom lip pooched out.

"Not right now. She's got to feed the baby."

"Aww, man." That was one of her new favorite phrases. "Can I go play on the swing?"

"What swing?"

"Over there, silly." She pointed behind the house, to the northwest corner of the property. Two ropes suspended a board from a branch of the huge pecan tree. Even knowing it was there, he found the swing hard to pick out. The tree cast a nearly impenetrable shade in the dying daylight. I bet that thing's great for sitting under in the summer.

"Sure, sweetie. Just don't go anywhere else, and come up to the house if we call you, OK?"

"OK, daddy." She grabbed his leg in a bear hug before tearing across the yard to the tree and calling over her shoulder, "I love you."

"I love you, too."

When he got back to the house with an armload of books from the back of the car, Cheryl was sitting on the porch in a rocking chair, breastfeeding the baby. Ray's blanket draped across her lap.

"Cheryl, cover up or go inside. There's a church next door, for crying out loud."

"When someone complains, I'll cover up. There's no one around, Vern."

"Yeah, I noticed that. Kinda creepy, isn't it?"

"A little. Look, it's going to be dark soon. Could you hurry up and get that stuff out of the car?"

Shaking his head, Vernon walked up the porch. At least Cheryl had propped the door open and turned the lights on. A dingy glass shade overhead cast dirty light across the walls and cobwebs festooning the corners. An ancient air conditioner sat in the side window. Cavemen must have used that thing. Floorboards creaked as he walked through the living room, only slightly muffled by a threadbare, green carpet. He could feel the hardened pad crumbling as he stepped. He wrinkled his nose at the dust and a musty odor that permeated the house, as if it has been shut up too long. Boxes and furniture covered most of the floor, often right in his path. He navigated the obstacle course, sidestepping mountains of cardboard, tables and a dresser before stepping through a curtained doorway on the far side of the room.

Pale blue linoleum squeaked as he stepped into the kitchen. The flooring looked intact, although it mounded into a hump against the left hand wall, just behind the dining table. This room was slightly less cluttered, although several boxes marked "dishes" sat on the counter. Pine cabinets lined the eastern wall on his right, half the doors standing open and exposing empty shelves inside. A pair of long windows showed darkening sky above the double sink. He found a clear spot on the table and set his books down. He opened the refrigerator with some trepidation. The light came on and cold air drifted out. As he suspected, it was empty. As he shut the fridge, its compressor kicked on, and the lights flickered. What kind of wiring do they have in this place?

Shadows leapt out of the open cabinets in time with the pulsating lights, streaming toward him as the power failed, and sulking back when it returned. Vernon shouted and fell back in a chair, which skittered across the floor. One flailing arm knocked the stack of books onto the floor. He stared about wildly, shrinking back from the darkness reaching for him.

Light sputtered once more, then steadied. Shadows became mere puddles of darkness again. He stared, but no matter how hard he looked, they refused to move. He wiped a trembling hand across his eyes and pushed himself to his feet. Don't be stupid. It's just the stress catching up with you. Now get to work.

Turning, he noticed a cracked window between the fridge and stove that looked out onto another room. Puzzled, he walked to the door on the other side of the refrigerator and into the back room.

Ethan had had the back porch enclosed. Their washer and dryer sat in one corner, while a blue sleeper sofa and a desk bearing a television and DVD player occupied the far side. The room's only window held a smaller, newer air conditioner than the one in the living room. A door near the laundry area led into the home's single bathroom.

He stepped inside the bathroom, shoes squeaking on more of the blue linoleum. A soft hiss and fwoomp made him jump. He turned to face a propane water heater in the near corner. Drawing a deep breath, he tried to steady himself. He blew sharply through his nose at the dull odor. It smelled like exhaust fumes he remembered from sitting on one of Houston's six-lane parking lots during rush hour.


Part II coming Monday!

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