Friday, September 21, 2007

Chapter 4: A Welcome, Part III

Will I ever see my wife and daughter again? Vernon had asked, not daring to hope it might be possible. The night had taken them. Why would it give them back? Better to hear they were gone for good so he could begin to move on. But against all expectations, Travis had told him it was not only possible, it was even likely. Never before had a word sounded so beautiful as “probably” did at that moment. Wasn’t there a “but” attached to it? He attacked plaque with his toothbrush and shoved the question aside. Doesn’t matter. If I can see them again, I need to stay. If I can see them...

“Then I haven’t really lost them,” he muttered and wiped the steam-fogged mirror clear. He spat out the last of the toothpaste, rinsed his mouth out and shut off the water. Turning, he peeled off his clothing, pushed the dingy plastic curtain aside and turned on the shower, careful to get the cold water going first.

He made the shower a brusque affair, scrubbing roughly with the soap-laden rag before lathering his hair and rinsing. Despite his rush, fumes from the water heater had his head hurting by the time he finished. He wrapped the towel around his waist and went into the bedroom to get dressed.

Raymond was awake and laying on his back when Vernon walked in. The baby smiled and reached for him with fingers clenching and unclenching. He smiled back and let Ray hold one of his fingers for a moment.

“Just a minute, buddy, OK?” he said softly, disengaged himself and plucked a shirt off the bed. Hopelessly wrinkled, and he didn’t think he could bear to try to iron anything, even if he knew where it was. He tossed it aside. Three more joined it before he found a serviceable polo shirt. Pants were easier to come by; he only went through two pair to find a decent set of black jeans. His undershirts, underwear and socks lay piled against the headboard. Vernon unwrapped the towel and threw it on top of boxes against the far wall and dressed in a hurry. He had just finished tucking in his shirt when someone knocked on the front door.

Vernon balanced Ray in the crook of his right elbow and opened the door. Fedora perched on his head, Travis stood on the porch next to a black teenage girl with her hair in long, thin braids and a dark blue diaper bag slung over one shoulder. Both had dressed in nearly identical outfits – white button-down shirts and jeans, although the teen’s fashionably ripped denim contrasted next to the mayor’s fresh, stiff pants. She smiled so warmly at the three-month-old baby that it took Vernon a moment to realize she was Marvin’s brooding daughter. She clapped her hands and reached for the infant. Vernon handed him over and gestured for the pair to come inside.

“Thank you, Mr. Hamilton,” Travis said. He doffed his hat as he crossed the threshold.

They walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. The teen ignored the adults. She set the diaper bag on the floor and Raymond in her lap and started blowing raspberries and babbling at the baby.

“Kateri is quite good with children,” Travis said. “She has helped care for children in Jennings Grove for several years now, but she’s always preferred the babies. She hasn’t had a chance since the tragic incident with the Eisfeldts last year. When I told her about yours, she nearly dragged me over here.” He chuckled.

“I’m glad she likes kids,” Vernon said. He lowered his voice and leaned forward. “But shouldn’t she be in school? She can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen…”

“I’m nineteen, Mr. Hamilton.” Kateri hadn’t taken her eyes off the baby, but a stern note entered her syrupy tone. “I’m studying child development. I take classes in the afternoon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at PJC. I have training in CPR for adults and children from the Red Cross.” She turned her head toward him, irritation written on her features. “That good enough for you?”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks.” She nodded and returned her attention to Ray.

Travis stood and pulled on Vernon’s shirt. The mayor led him back into the living room, letting the green curtain fall back into place in the kitchen doorway before he spoke again. “I feel I must apologize for Kateri, Mr. Hamilton. She’s actually a sweet girl, but she’s always been touchy about her age.” He ran a hand through his gray hair and laughed. “She hasn’t reached the point yet where appearing younger than her years is an asset.”

“It’s OK.” He lapsed into silence, chewing on his lip as he stared out the door.

“I believe it’s past time for you to go to work.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Right.” Vernon patted his pockets, which were empty. He turned in a slow circle, glancing around the room. Travis’ hand on his arm stopped him.

“Just a moment.” He went back into the kitchen and emerged a moment later carrying Vernon’s wallet, keys and a small brown bag. “I spotted your things on the counter earlier. I thought you might have forgotten where you put them after last night.” He hefted the bag. “Mrs. Williams – Kateri’s mother – packed a lunch for you.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, taking the proffered items. He stuffed the wallet in his back pocket and headed for the door.

Travis followed him out and shook his hand. Vernon felt a lump between their palms. After they broke contact, he found himself holding a sizable wad of money. The outside bill showed half of Andrew Jackson’s profile. “Have a good day, Mr. Hamilton. Don’t worry about a thing here; we’ll take care of it. And I know I told you we’re planning a celebration when you get home, but try to at least act a little surprised.” He winked and stepped back into the house.

Dropping himself into the driver’s seat, Vernon started the car and drove slowly down the driveway, watching the swing moving in a gentle breeze. That thing’s going to have to come down. He wiped tears from his cheeks. He kept his car at a crawl as he drove down the county road and toward FM 197. He switched on the left turn indicator, and after a brief pause at the stop sign, started out on the highway.

A flash of red and a blaring horn were all that kept him from running straight into the pickup barreling down the road. A middle finger waved at him from the truck’s rear window as he turned onto the highway. The Camry moved down the road at a steady forty miles per hour until he reached US 271. He drove into Paris at fifty-five, ignoring the cars blasting by him. He could almost hear his wife’s voice urging him to pick it up. The speed limit was seventy, for crying out loud. Vernon kept the accelerator where it was. Anything more required more than his exhausted brain and jangled nerves could handle.

Cheryl, what am I going to do without you?


Chapter 5 coming Monday!

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Chapter 4: A Welcome, Part II

The door thumped shut behind them, leaving him alone with his slumbering infant.

Raymond secured in the middle of a ring of mounded pillows on a cleared part of the bed, Vernon shuffled into the kitchen. He stopped at the counter, pried open a couple of cardboard boxes and stared at them, his gaze shifting left and right between the two while his fuzzy brain tried to remember why it brought him here. His right hand dropped into a box and spider-crawled its way through the contents. Steel wool scratched his fingers, only to be shoved aside. A package of napkins flipped over the lid and landed on the green Formica counter. Canned vegetables rattled in the bottom as his hand encountered something hard and cool to the touch. He grasped it and pulled out a white mug bearing a small, red handprint and straggling letters proclaiming him “World’s Best Daddy.” The mug fell from dead fingers and smashed in the sink. Red shards of pottery stared at him from among the debris like bloody fingerprints left behind at a murder scene.

Coffee. I came in here for coffee. He rooted through the lefthand box and pulled out the coffeemaker. The pitcher had been wrapped and stuffed with newspaper to keep it from breaking. Vernon unwrapped the pot and removed the stuffing. Sniffling, he set the coffeepot in the sink and pushed the faucet lever back. Water rushed into the pot, quickly rising toward the top. He wiped his nose on his upper arm, leaving a pale green trail on the blue shirtsleeve. He shut the water off and left the pot in the sink while he dug the rest of the coffeemaker out of its box. His fingers left bright patches in the gray dust that marred its off-white plastic surface.

One eye on the lights overhead, Vernon held his breath and plugged the appliance into a wall outlet. Nothing happened. He heaved a sigh of relief, set the coffeepot on its warming plate and flipped the power switch. It glowed a welcoming orange. After a moment, clear water started dribbling into the pitcher. You idiot! Vernon snapped the switch off and pulled open the top. He rummaged around in the box and finally located the grounds and filters. Setting the filter in place, he heaped several scoops of coffee inside and switched it back on. He hesitated a moment, yawned, then opened the maker back up and tossed in more grounds. No time to sleep. Got to get to work soon. He shambled past the refrigerator, through the back room and into the bathroom.

The smell from the water heater slapped his nostrils. Slightly more alert, Vernon wrinkled his nose and flipped the light switch on. A pair of bare bulbs in the fixture overhead spread weak light over the room. He glanced up and grimaced. What do they got up there? Forty-watt bulbs? Going to have to replace those before tonight. A quick perusal of the sink and cabinet showed he had no toiletries. Grumbling under his breath, Vernon walked to the front of the house, pausing to check on the coffee – which was percolating nicely – and his son – who was snoring in his nest of pillows – before gently opening the door and stepping outside. A bright sun shone on the world. The cheerful autumn morning felt like an insult after the night just past.

His Camry sat in the driveway; a layer of dust dulled its green paint. The liftgate remained open. Vernon walked to the car and looked inside at boxes stacked in the back. Eyes scanning the cardboard pile, Vernon shifted boxes until he caught sight of a frayed blue strap. Glasses rattled as he shoved a container backward and lifted the handmade denim bag out. The gate shut with a thud and he carried the bag inside. Ray stirred but didn’t awaken as Vernon made his way back to the bathroom.

The bag’s contents clinked and clattered as it hit the counter. Vernon’s hand rested on the zipper while the other caressed the faded denim. How many times had he begged Cheryl to replace the thing? She’d already had it for years when he met her, one of the few successful projects to come out of a home economics class in college. She had always refused, and the bag continued to serve their family like an old servant who grew more tattered with age but bore their burdens without fail and without complaint. Vernon unzipped it.

Shaving cream emerged to stand at attention next to deodorant while his toothbrush and razor loafed nearby. He turned to place the shampoo and soap on the edge of the bathtub, along with a tightly rolled rag and towel. Mouthwash and toothpaste thumped onto the counter. Vernon tossed the bag into the corner next to the water heater and turned the faucet on. Hot water scalded his waiting hand almost immediately.

“Son of a –” The rest died in an unintelligible mutter as he shoved wounded digits in his mouth. The thing’s sitting right there. How long did you think it would take to heat the water up? He spun the cold spigot with his free hand and withdrew his fingers to inspect the damage. They were red, but didn’t look severely burned. He scowled, picked up the shaving cream and lathered his face.

Vernon dragged the razor slowly across his chin, scraping over the skin as it cut through new growth. He tried to watch himself in the mirror, but his mind kept going back to the morning’s conversation with Travis Ware, worrying over two particular points like a dog with a chicken leg.

Where would you go? Ware had asked. Vernon shook his head and stared down at the steaming sink. That question hit closer to home than he cared to think about. Since the death of his parents in a house fire twelve years ago, he had no family of his own, not even an uncle or cousin. The thought of going to his wife’s family was laughable. They never liked me much to begin with. What would they say if I showed up with their daughter and granddaughter mysteriously disappeared? Oh, they'd cheerfully take Raymond, and just as cheerfully leave Vernon out to dry. But a boy needed his father, not his grandparents. Besides, Ware had given him every reason to stay right here.

The water heater kicked on with a fwoomp, startling him out of his thoughts. He picked up the toothpaste and brush and started cleaning his teeth.


Part III coming Friday!

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Chapter 4: A Welcome, Part I

They came for him just after dawn, once the sun made it safe again.

Travis Ware and a group of men, all still dressed in their Sunday finest, poured in through the open back door. They stood in silence, staring at Vernon, who sat with the sleeping infant in one hand and the weakening flashlight clutched in the other. He pivoted the light toward any shadows that caught his eye.

"There, I told you at least one of them would make it," Travis said. "Congratulations, Mr. Hamilton. You survived your first night in Jennings Grove. Not many people do."

One of the men – the one he had seen with the sullen teenage daughter – stepped forward, hand extended. Vernon remained motionless until the man touched him. He swung the flashlight into his nose, which collapsed with a crunch, and lifted the light above his head once more. The man clutched his ruined nose with one hand and balled the other into a fist. Travis gripped his arm.

"Now, now, Marvin, that's no way to welcome a new neighbor. I believe a little understanding is in order. Remember the state we found you in after your first night?" Marvin nodded and stepped back. Travis knelt beside Vernon. "Mr. Hamilton, you can put that down. It's daylight. There's nothing to harm you now."

His thumb pushed the flashlight's rubber button. The waning light clicked off and he slowly lowered it to the floor, blinking as he gazed at the men gathered around him.

"How? Why?" his voice trailed off, but Travis seemed to understand.

"Everyone asks that, but I doubt anyone really knows. Myself, I think this is just one of those places in the world where man hasn't tamed the darkness." He shrugged. "The night has always been a source of terror. The Bible speaks of 'outer darkness;' Shakespeare mentioned a 'wild night.' Here, we see the truth of it."

"But why do you stay?"

"Why?" He seemed genuinely shocked. "Because it's home. Where else would we go?"

Vernon nodded. He looked down at the boy sleeping in his arms. Home? Are these people absolutely bonkers? How could they expect he would even think of making a home in this place that had taken everything from him? Unless... "Will I…" He swallowed. "Will I ever see my wife and daughter again?"

"Probably, but it's best to ignore them." Travis stood and flapped his hand at the men, who started filing toward the door. "Look, Mr. Hamilton, you need to get cleaned up and get ready for work. This is your first day on the job; you won't want to be late."

He nearly dropped Ray in his shock. "Get ready for work? Are you nuts? I just spent a night straight out of hell, half my family is gone, and you think I'm going to work?" He clutched the baby to his chest, shaking his head. "I'm not in any shape to go in today. Even if I stay – and there's no guarantee of that – I just need to stay here and take care of my son."

“Where would you go should you decide to leave?” Vernon opened his mouth, but Travis didn’t wait for an answer. "I'm sorry for your loss, Mr. Hamilton, but this is no time to sulk at home. I understand your finances are shaky at best. We can help some until your first paycheck, but not if you're not going to help yourself." He sighed. "And we don’t want to attract attention here.”

“A woman and little girl are missing. Do you really think the cops aren’t going to stick their noses out here? How on Earth…”

“We will deal with it later, after you’ve settled in.” Vernon’s incredulity must have painted itself on his face; Travis caught one look of his expression and smiled sadly. “Trust me, Mr. Hamilton. It’s not that hard. We have a great deal of practice.”

Vernon’s protest died in his throat. His shoulders slumped, and he felt his facial muscles sag. A hiccough escaped, followed by another. Eyes closed, he shook his head and scrubbed tears from his cheeks. I can’t argue anymore. No matter what he said, Ware had an answer. And what was the point? He’d lost nearly everything. It’s all my fault. He didn’t even try to deny it. The decision to take this job and accept Ethan’s invitation to move into this house had been his and no other. How many times had Cheryl reminded him of that fact in the last few weeks? Every decision I’ve made has led to disaster – to this. He looked up at Travis Ware, who stood with arms folded while he stared thoughtfully out the window. He looked so…confident. He seems to know what he’s doing. How often has he been through this? The “mayor,” as he liked to call himself, had given him reason to stay – perhaps unwittingly – and if they were going to remain, it might be nice to let someone who knew the town make the decisions for a while. He can’t do any worse than I’ve done.

“Fine,” he said. “I give up. You’re right.” Ray squirmed in his grasp as he stood and knuckled his back. “But what about the baby? I can’t leave him here by himself.”

“Don’t worry about that, Mr. Hamilton. It’s already been taken care of.” He ushered all the men out and turned to shut the door. "We’ll have an official celebration today when you get home – it's so seldom we get people who can live here – but I want to be the first to welcome you to Jennings Grove."


There will be no update Friday; Part II is coming Monday!

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