Friday, October 12, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part VI

Sighing heavily, Vernon nodded and let Ware lead him through the press, which parted for Ware as readily as the Red Sea had for Moses. Figures they’d let him through. He scowled at the floor as Travis pulled the green curtain to one side and they passed into the kitchen. He yanked a chair from underneath the table and plopped down before looking up. A soft swell of conversation filled the room. Fewer people had come in here, allowing him to see more of the room itself.

It was perfect. Not a box or bag to be found, just a few appliances on the counter. He caught sight of an upper cabinet door slightly ajar. Plates sat atop one another on one shelf, with a stack of bowls next to it. Ignoring the soft chatting around him, Vernon stood and approached the cupboard, using one finger to hook the door and pull it open. A lemony scent of some cleaner or other wafted out. Inside, glasses and coffee mugs occupied the top two shelves, all arrayed as orderly as a contingent of soldiers. He turned and faced Ware with an eyebrow cocked.

“Some of the women in town got together and straightened the house for you.”

“And you just went right ahead and let them in?” Vernon asked softly. The murmurs faltered and died. Every eye in the room turned toward him.

Travis chuckled. “‘A man’s not fit to organize the home,’ they said. You were married. Did you ever find it beneficial to argue with a woman on matters like this?”

Vernon opened his mouth, then shut it and lowered his head. That “were” stung, hard enough to slump his shoulders and send him shuffling back to his chair. Snippets of conversation sprung up, a couple at first, then more following as they realized the scene had passed. I swore till death. Until I see a body, I’m still married. I don’t care what he says.

Revelers tried to draw him into the party, with words of welcome, compliments on his son and commiseration for his loss offered like bait to a feral dog being coaxed into a cage. He refused to be drawn in. When the attempts at conversation continued, he retreated to the back room. He huddled on the blue couch. The hide-a-bed’s iron works squeaked when he shifted. Finally, they got the message and stopped coming up to him. Even Ware left him alone, for which Vernon was grateful. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep to dream of pushing Alexis on a swing while Cheryl held Raymond and watched from the other side.

“Higher, Daddy! Higher!” His wife laughed. Vernon grinned at her and blinked. She and the baby seemed dim, somehow less substantial than the rest of the world. He glanced down at Alexis. The swing felt as heavy as it always had, but she looked just as faint as the other two. Only his body and the grass at his feet looked solid. He turned his gaze skyward. A shaft of sunlight surrounded him while shadows deepened elsewhere. Vernon stepped forward. Better to be with them in darkness than alone in the light. The illumination moved with him, but his family never got any closer. By now, he could barely see them. Vernon moved faster, trying to share the protective light with them. No matter how quickly he ran, they remained out of reach. Soon he lost sight of them altogether, hemmed in on all sides by darkness except for the small shaft of light around him. It was like being stuck in a well.

“Vernon,” his wife called, her voice faint as if from a great distance. He trembled. “Vernon…” His shaking increased.

Jerking awake, he flailed and grabbed the couch cushion. The textured fabric felt reassuringly solid. His breathing evened and his heart slowed. He looked up at Travis, who had stopped shaking him now that he was awake.

“Everyone’s leaving,” Ware said, nodding at the window, which showed a quickly dying day outside.

“Alright,” he said, sitting up. Vernon rubbed his eyes, frowning as his hands came away wet. He looked back and saw damp spots on the couch where his head had lain. He wiped the last of the tears away and stood. “Where’s Ray?”

“Your son is still with Kateri, at the Williams’ house.”

“Do I need to go get him?”

“No. They’ll bring him back tomorrow after you get home from work.”

“What?” Indignation swelled his chest and drew him upright. “If you think I’m going to let y’all take my kid…”

Travis sighed. “Look, Vernon. This will be your second night in Jennings Grove. In some ways it’ll be tougher than your first. We’ve found it’s easier if you spend at least one night alone to get acclimated. This way, you’re past the shock and can better care for your family.”

“Oh.” Deflated, Vernon nodded and followed Travis through the house to the front door. “Good night, then.”

“Good night. Be careful tonight, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

The door closed with a thump, leaving Vernon alone with his thoughts and the encroaching night. ____

Chapter 6 coming Monday!

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part V

Vernon walked slowly to the cash register, leaning back to keep the load from falling to the floor. Even so, he had to stop several times and shrug lights and batteries back into place. He dropped everything on the counter with a sound like marbles spilling across the floor. Several packages of batteries fell off. Vernon squatted to retrieve them while the guy behind the counter started ringing the items up and placing them in a paper bag on the counter. His apron named him Gary, a completely bald man who could be called young only compared to Theron. He looked like a straighter, less wrinkled version of the older man. He must be the “& Son.”

“You planning some kind of campout, mister?” Gary asked. He glanced at Vernon between items, his hands never pausing on the register keys.

“Not really.” As the silence drew out, he shrugged and added, “They’re for the family.”

“Ah,” Gary replied. “Kids scared of the dark?”

“Yes! That’s it right there. It’s an old house, and it’s hard to keep lights on all the time. Figured this would help keep them quiet and go to sleep.”

“Sounds like a good idea.” He smiled. “And if nothing else, you’ve got enough here to see you through the end of the world.”

Vernon offered a thin smile in return and fell silent. Gary made his last keystroke and punched a large button at the bottom. The total flashed up on a small screen facing Vernon: $237.52. He gulped and drew the cash from his pocket, wincing as he peeled each twenty off the roll. He handed twelve bills to the clerk and looked at the remaining money. At least two-thirds of it still remained. How much did they give me? He stuffed the money back in his pocket along with his change and grabbed the paper bag. The weight felt reassuring.

The sun had sunk noticeably toward the horizon by the time he reached his car. He opened the passenger door and dropped the sack on the floor. He stood there for several minutes, gazing northward with a growing sense of unease tying his stomach in knots. Even armed as he was, he felt ill prepared for the coming night. What if it’s not enough? he thought and glanced at the bag. What if it takes Ray, too? He slunk around the car and dropped himself into the driver’s seat. He paid just enough attention to the highway to keep from driving off the road or into other cars, missing FM 197. He only realized his error when he crossed the Red River into Oklahoma. He had to make two U-turns before he snapped himself out of his funk and found the right road. He drove slowly down the winding farm road. No matter how he tried to draw it out, however, he eventually came to County Road 36850 and turned right.

Springs in the Camry’s suspension bounced and squeaked down the gravel road and onto the driveway. Vernon stared at the white house, cringing back into his seat as it grew larger in his vision. When he looked back at the driveway, he found a large blue pickup parked directly in front of him, the last in a long line of vehicles. Yelling, Vernon twisted the wheel, stomped on the brake pedal and drove off into the yard. He sat there for several minutes, breathing heavily with his head on the steering wheel. His right hand shoved the transmission lever into park and rose, shaking, to turn the ignition off and yank the key out.

Who are all these people? What are they doing here? He climbed out of the car and stalked through the grass. Lights shone in every window he could see. I’ve got enough problems without everyone in the universe showing up tonight. You’d think they would understand that better than anyone. He could feel a scowl drawing his brow down and bowing his mouth, but didn’t bother trying to smooth his features. If they were going to be rude enough to show up unannounced, they deserved whatever they got. He stomped up the stairs and hauled the door open.

“Alright, this is…”

The words died in his throat, swallowed in a roar of greeting from dozens of people packed in the house. A banner stretched across the far wall blazing the message “Welcome home!” Red, green and blue balloons squeaked as they floated and overhead, enough of them that he couldn’t see the ceiling. Travis Ware stood smiling at the front of the throng. He didn’t see the babysitter anywhere. She’s probably in the back room or something. He looked around. All the people standing around made it difficult to tell much about the room, but he thought it looked a little too neat. Where’d all the boxes go?

“I said it once this morning, but please allow me to say it again: Welcome to Jennings Grove, Mr. Hamilton,” Ware said, taking a step forward arms outspread.

“Yeah, thanks.” Vernon sidestepped the mayor and broke left toward his room. The line of people bent without giving way. “Excuse me, please.” They muttered and looked at each other, but no one moved. He waved a hand at the bedroom. “Do you mind?” The murmuring increased.

Ware stepped forward, placed a hand on his elbow and leaned over to speak softly in his ear. “Please, Mr. Hamilton – Vern – there’s no need to be rude. These people have put a great deal of time and effort into this. Let them have their celebration; Heaven knows they have little enough opportunity.”


Part VI coming Friday!

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Friday, October 5, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part IV

Ethan was gone when Vernon arrived. He leaned back against the wall and waited, rubbing his eyes and trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. His friend’s nameplate beside the door stared at him. He glared back. Just one hint, some sort of warning about the town, Ethan. That’s all it would have taken. How could you let this happen to us? Vernon thumped his head against the wall and fumed, his anger building the longer he waited. Red tinted the edges of his vision.

The double doors opened and Ethan stepped through, his eyes locked on a sheaf of papers. Vernon straightened and folded his arms. Ethan looked up, spotted him and smiled. “Hey, bud. Come on in.” He pointed into his office. “Got any news for me about that press?”

“Yeah,” he replied curtly and reached into his back pocket. He tossed the wrench on the desk. “I’d say whoever sent that maintenance guy out here last month owes us a complete rewiring.”

Ethan picked the tool up and slowly turned it in front of his face. “This was causing our problems?”

“Yep.” Vernon ground his teeth. “It was rattling around at the bottom of the machine and getting knocked around when the press dropped. It’d connect with the wires and ground them out. I guess this last time around, it finally crossed between the two and shorted the whole thing.”

“Good work.” He glanced at the paper again. “Tomorrow, I’d like you to take a look at a vacuum mold. It’s not working right.”


Frowning, Ethan folded his hands and rested his chin on them. “You OK?”

“I was wondering…” he began. I was wondering why you sent us there to die. But he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. It sounded so stupid all of a sudden, and blurting out accusations like that would only threaten his job. He couldn’t afford for that to happen. Neither could Raymond. His anger sputtered and died. Heaving a sigh, he muttered, “I was wondering if I could knock off early and get home.”

“Of course! Go home, and for God’s sake, get some rest. See you bright and early tomorrow.”

“See ya,” he mumbled. It’s got to be more bright than early. On the way out, he stopped at a locker assigned to him when he walked in this morning and retrieved the brown sack lunch Ware had given him. Paper crinkled as he unrolled the top and peered inside. Two halves of a hefty roast beef sandwich lay under a small bag of chips. Vernon’s stomach rumbled.

He polished off the chips and a quarter of the sandwich before ever reaching the car. The rest of the food disappeared by the time he left the parking lot and turned onto Loop 286. As he approached Highway 271, he noticed a hardware store at the corner. A sign out front proclaimed it “Callahan & Son.” Patting the wad of bills in his pocket, Vernon slammed on the brakes and whipped into the lot. A horn blared behind him. He looked back at the highway and saw a middle finger pointed high in the air above the roof of a pickup. He killed the engine and went inside.

A small bell tinkled overhead as he pushed the door open. Vernon wandered the aisles, gazing listlessly at screws, nails, hammers and wallpaper until an elderly man shuffled up beside him. At least a foot shorter, age had bent him further so that he had to twist his neck and cock his head to look Vernon in the eye. He wore a blue and white striped apron with large pockets on the front. Black stitching spelled out “Theron” on the left breast. Vernon wondered if this was Callahan.

“Help you, sir?” He spoke in a soft croak.

“Uh, I’m looking for…um…” Vernon shook his head, trying to think straight. “Flashlights. I need flashlights. Oh, and batteries, too.”

Theron nodded and shambled off. Vernon followed with a slight smile. Odd as it looked, the clerk’s arthritic gait carried him with deceptive speed, seeming to cross the tortured linoleum floor in great stretches whenever a doorknocker or ceiling fan or power tool snagged Vernon’s attention for a moment. He constantly found himself having to increase his speed to catch up. Then Theron disappeared.

Rounding a corner, he found the old store clerk with thumbs hitched into his apron, standing in the last aisle next to a great stack of shelves bearing what had to be every type of flashlight known to man. Batteries hung in plastic blister packs at the far end. It was, he decided, one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen.

“Good thing I found you,” Theron rasped. “The way you were going, you would have spend most of the afternoon in here wandering around.”

That would have been fine with me, Vernon thought. Aloud, he said: “Thanks a lot. This is just what I was looking for.” The old man nodded and shuffled off to some other distant corner of the hardware store.

Fingers caressing the middle shelf, he gazed at the flashlights, studying each one with the care of a cop selecting a new sidearm. Small ones, he dismissed right away. No way those things would do any good out there. Several plastic ones joined the “no” list almost as quickly. Too cheap; can’t depend on something like that. One by one the candidates fell, until he found himself staring at a group of seven lights lined up on the top shelf like soldiers guarding a castle wall. Each one bore a sizable price tag, but even the weakest looked to have the power of his light at home. Which one? He tapped the bulge of money in his pocket.

Unable to decide, he finally grabbed all seven and hugged them to his chest. A virtual mountain of D-cells joined them.


Part V coming Monday!

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part III

The tour ended next to a pair of drop presses. One of the machines was running, its operator feeding it sheets of plastic while large weights slammed down, forcing them into wide, shallow bowls. The other sat still, forlorn and quiet with an odor of ozone coming from somewhere inside. windows 2003 ent serial keygen

“This is it,” Ethan said. “Once school starts up, we’re focused mostly on the Christmas trees, as you can see, but we keep a couple running on pools to stock up for the summer. We need this one back up as soon as possible.” He pointed Vernon to a rolling toolbox standing nearby. “Everything you need should be in there. If not, ask one of the guys or come find me. I’ll be around here somewhere.”

“Sure thing.” Vernon walked around the bright red toolbox and found his name stenciled on the lid. He flipped it open, retrieved a couple of adjustable wrenches and a reversible screwdriver and walked to the silent machine. “What’s wrong with you?”

The question reverberated as he worked, unscrewing an electrical access panel to get at the guts. It looked to need rewiring, and the insulation had worn in places, but he couldn’t find any scorch marks that would indicate the wires had crossed. What’s wrong with you? Ethan had bought that house and sent them there. Now half his family was gone. Do you think he did that on purpose? Vernon shook his head. Obviously, he couldn’t have known about the darkness in Jennings Grove, but he had noticed something strange there, and hadn’t even thought to give the Hamiltons a heads up. He should have told us there was something weird about the place. We could have… The thought trailed off. What could they have done? Found some other place offering free rent for half a year? Lived in the car? We would have been on guard, at least. That’d be something. Cheryl and Alexis might still be here if he’d given us a little warning. He shook his head again, trying to still the debate. It raged on until a hand dropped on his shoulder. Vernon jumped, dropped his tools and fell backwards off the press. His butt smacked painfully on the concrete floor.

He looked up to see the other press’ grizzled operator staring back down at him. “You alright, buddy?” he asked, extending a hand. Vernon took it and climbed back to his feet.

“Yeah. Just scared me a little.”

“Got any idea what’s wrong with her?” the man asked, jerking his head at the press.

“Not yet. Still looking.”

“Shoot. The way you were staring at it, I thought you’d found something.”

“Just thinking.” He rubbed his bottom, then scratched his head. “Did the thing go down all at once or did it run for a while first?”

The worker pulled his blue ballcap off and ran fingers through his blond hair. “A little of both, really.” He put the hat back on. “Today, we started it up, and she just died with a big sizzle and a sort of pop. But she’s been acting kind of wonky for about a month now, running in fits and starts.” He laughed.

“Something funny?”

“It’s just that the company spent a fair amount of money for the vendor to send a maintenance guy to come out and give her a quick overhaul last month. Looks like they should have sprung for the deluxe package, know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” He clapped the man on the arm. “Thanks a lot.”

“Don’t know that I did much, but you’re quite welcome.” He glanced at his watch. “Say, it’s lunch time. Want to knock off for a bit and grab something to eat?”

“Maybe some other time. I really want to see if I can get this machine up and running again.”

“Suit yourself.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m Bob Click.”

“Vern Hamilton,” he replied, shaking his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

As Bob walked off, Vernon sagged to his knees next to the press. Lunch time already? The day’s half gone. That meant he’d have to go back home before long. Maybe they’ll need me to stay late, or perhaps I can talk Ethan into going out for a drink or something. He grabbed his screwdriver and tried to open the bottom access panel. The flat head chattered around the screw for several seconds before he could force it into place. He took a deep breath and turned. The process repeated itself for the remaining three screws, but eventually got the panel loose. The culprit lay inside.

“Some overhaul,” he muttered, retrieving a large crescent wrench. Scorch marks marred the shiny metal surface, and it had melted more than halfway through in a few places. A quick glance inside the machine revealed similar burns along the case and bare wires that looked eaten through.

He sat on the concrete floor, turning the mangled wrench over and over in his hands. He felt like that tool. He’d been tossed into a world he didn’t belong, and now he found himself trying to bridge the darkness there with a normal life that contained swimming pools, Christmas trees and malfunctioning machines. The strain was already taking its toll. How much longer could he keep this up before something short circuited?

“Wow. That’s one messed up hunk of metal.”

Startled, Vernon dropped the wrench to the floor with a clang. He hastily climbed to his feet, dusting off his pants before stooping to retrieve the battered tool. He straightened and turned to face Bob, who was busy working a toothpick between his teeth. Bob pulled the wooden sliver from his mouth and pointed at the wrench. “That what done it?”

“Looks that way. I guess the maintenance guy got a little careless.” He scratched his head and took a deep breath. “You seen Ethan around?”


“Ethan…Mr. Roodschild.”

“Oh, him, yeah. I think I saw him going back to his office.”

“OK, thanks.” Tucking the wrench in his back pocket, he nodded at Bob and walked past him toward the far side of the shop.


Part IV coming Friday!


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Friday, September 28, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part II

“Vern! Great to see you. Glad you’re here. I got to tell you, I wasn’t sure…” Worry supplanted delight as he drew closer. “Good Lord, Vern, you look horrible. Are you OK? Here, sit down.” He grasped Vernon’s arm and guided him to an armchair against the wall across from his desk.

“I’m fine, just tired. You wouldn’t believe the night I had. Raymond’s the only one who got any sleep.”

“New home getting to you a bit?”

Vernon gave a mirthless chuckle. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“If you need to go home…”

“No!” He made himself relax and unclench his fists from the chair arms. A shudder rippled through his frame. “Sorry, didn’t mean to yell. You need me here, and I don’t want to disturb the family. You know how Cheryl gets when she’s arranging the house.”

“Yeah.” He laughed. “Remember that time I came over to watch the Super Bowl when she was putting in new bedroom furniture? I think I was lucky to escape with my head.” His laughter grew, and he leaned back in the chair. “And then you came back to my house. How long did you wind up staying before you decided it was safe to go home?”

Fighting back tears, Vernon forced a smile. “Three days. The first thing she did when I walked in the door was throw a plate at my head. I slept on the couch for a week.”

“Wow.” Ethan straightened and let his mirth subside. “Still, are you sure she doesn’t need you at home? It can’t be easy, trying to straighten all that up with two kids to deal with.”

“It’s not a problem. They got a girl from there in Jennings Grove to watch the kids for the day. She’s not even charging us for it.”

“Really? That’s nice.” He leaned forward. “That’s an odd little town, isn’t it?”

His heart sped up. “How do you mean?”

“When I visited there to look at that house, they greeted me with open arms. But once they found out I was just buying rental property, they acted like I told them I planned to move to town and personally strangle all their pets.” Ethan shook his head. “One guy – Ware, I think his name was – even offered to buy me out of the deal.”

“Travis Ware?”

“Yeah, that’s him. Called himself ‘mayor’ and walked around like he owned the whole place. I refused, of course. After that, they all stopped talking to me altogether, except to tell me that I couldn’t have people working on the house after dark.”

“Sounds reasonable to me. Who wants to hear construction at all hours?”

“I guess, but they were just so snotty about the whole thing.” He shrugged. “Besides, it wasn’t necessary, anyway. Would you believe that’s built into the deed restrictions? It says I can’t have any sort of contractor ‘or anyone not residing on the property between an hour before sunset and an hour after dawn.’ I got to tell you, I almost walked away from the whole thing when I saw that clause.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Money. With the land and house on it, it was too good a deal to pass up, even with all the work the house needed. I would have had to spend at least half as much more on any of the other properties I was looking at in the south part of the county. Say, how’s the house look, anyway? I haven’t been out there in awhile.”

“It’s fine for the most part. The water heater doesn’t vent right, though. It kind of smells like rush hour in the bathroom. And Cheryl wasn’t too thrilled with the asbestos siding and lead paint.”

“I know, I know. Tell her I plan to have it taken care of by the end of the year. I’m trying to see what my options are. You know how these environmental whackos can be with that stuff.”

“Take your time, Ethan. I told her that should be fine as long as we leave it up on the wall and don’t mess with it. I doubt you’ll hear another word from her about it.” Or anything else, he thought, fighting down a hysterical giggle.

“Well, it still needs to be dealt with. I’ll have my guy look at the water heater as soon as he can. He’s busy, though; it’ll probably be next week.”

“That’s fine.”

“Good.” Ethan dug around in a drawer and pulled out two pairs of safety glasses and earplugs. Handing one pair of each to Vernon, he stood and donned the protective equipment. Vernon followed suit. “What do you say we go down to the floor and walk around?”

He led the way out of the office and through the doors at the far end of the hall. On the other side, the thuds grew into a percussive beat that played on his ribcage like a second heartbeat. The sound changed, growing more complex. Even with the earplugs, he could make out several machines running at once, clattering and thumping in an endless cycle. The air smelled of hot plastic, grease and a faint whiff of ozone.

“You got some bad wiring in here?” Vernon asked, sniffing.

“One of our stamp presses went out this morning. I was hoping you could take a look at it and see if you could figure out why it fried.”

“Got me troubleshooting on the first day?”

“It’s one of the things you did best at Franklin.”

“I’ll get right on it as soon as we’re done here.”

They spent the next two hours in a flurry of greetings and handshakes until his head spun. He watched machines twisting thin steel rods into the branches of plastic trees, men and women cutting green sheets into small, simulated evergreen needles and even a couple of people flocking trees. October and they’re already consumed with Christmas trees. Well, December is only a couple of months away. I guess they do have to ramp up now.


Part III coming Monday!

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Chapter 5: Hard at Work, Part I

Vernon's head slipped off his fist and slammed onto the conference room table. Jerking up, he looked at the elderly secretary whose soft knock had startled him awake. She gazed back with an expression torn between grandmotherly concern and annoyance for someone caught sleeping on the job. Reading glasses dangled from a chain around her neck.

“Are you OK, Mr. Hamilton? You’ve been in here half an hour.”

Rubbing his forehead, Vernon ventured a listless smile the hoped looked more sheepish than guilty. “I’m fine, ma’am. Just tired. You know – first night in a new house, nothing’s familiar and no one can get any sleep.” He managed a weak laugh. “I’m a city boy, and I got to tell you, it’s too quiet and too dark up here.”

Concern triumphed over annoyance. The secretary glanced back over her shoulder and shut the door before sitting next to him. “Isn’t it, though? We moved up here years ago from Dallas. Paris is a nice town, but I still wake up some nights wondering where all the cars are.” Leaning forward, she perched the glasses on her nose and looked over his half-completed paperwork. “I’ll give you a couple more minutes to let you finish this up, hon. Just drop it off at my desk when you’re done.” She stood and patted the white bun on the back of her head.

“Thanks, ma’am.” She nodded and slipped out the door.

He stared at the forms a moment before picking the pen up from where he had dropped it and filling out the rest of the blank fields. Before falling asleep, he'd agonized over “marital status” for several minutes before finally checking “married.” “Widowed” certainly didn’t sound right. Just because she's disappeared doesn’t mean she’s dead. He chewed on the pen while he reviewed the paperwork. Besides, Ware said to avoid attention. Saying she’s dead would draw all kinds of attention right now.

Vernon started to stand when he noticed an empty line under life insurance beneficiary. He’d put Ray’s name in the blank, but the form asked for his Social Security number. Wasn’t it six-six-three something? Or was it six-six-one? Cheryl always kept up with that stuff. His hands shook and fresh tears stung his eyes. Vernon shook his head. Get a grip! You’ve got work to do and a boy to take care of. This is no time to start falling apart. Breathing deeply, he waited until both trembling and tears stopped and stepped out of the conference room. The secretary – her nameplate said Rose Maldonado – looked up as he approached and slapped the paperwork down on her desk.

“All done,” he said. “Well, nearly all done. I’m going to have to get back with you on my son’s Social for the beneficiary form. I never can remember it.”

“That’s fine, hon.” Rose peered up at him over the rim of her glasses. “Mr. Roodschild wanted to see you as soon as you got done.”

“Thanks, Rose.” He started to walk away, then paused and turned back. “Which one is he in?”

She laughed and pointed down a hallway straight in front of him. “Go that way, through the double doors and turn left. He’s in the second office on the left.”

Vernon gave her a small salute and a grin and strode down the hall. The smile withered as he walked. Approaching the double doors, he caught sight of his reflection in the glass and recoiled slightly. The morning’s grooming hadn’t done much to improve his looks. If anything, it had made them worse. Eyes peered through dark circles in an otherwise scrubbed, freshly shaven face. What little hair he had had been tamed into rigid lines, contrasting his slumping frame. All together, it made him look like a well-prepared corpse left out just a little too long. He shuddered and walked through.

All the offices were on the left, most of the doors closed. Large, framed photographs of Christmas trees and men at machines lined the wall to his right, ending at another set of double doors at the far end of the hall. A rhythmic thudding came from the other side. He placed his hand on the wall. It vibrated in time with the bangs.

The second office door stood open. Vernon leaned on the frame. His friend was seated at the desk in his office, silver hair facing him as he ran down a column of figures with a ruler. Vernon smiled at the familiar sight and knocked softly on the open door. Ethan bolted upright, a grin replacing the serious expression on his face. Standing, he walked around the desk with one hand extended.


Part II coming Friday!

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