Friday, January 4, 2008

Chapter 7: Back to Work, Part VI

He started the machine and stared at the plastic sheet suspended above the form while the infrared heaters started. Alexis had liked pink. She'd always wanted her room painted hot pink, but Vernon wouldn't do it. He found so much of the color nauseating. Should have done it anyway. When he brought them back, he'd even paint her closet. If it worked, of course...

"Watch out!" Charles' nasal voice blared through his thoughts.

Vernon had leaned forward, nearly underneath overheated plastic drooping away from the heaters. It had softened to the point that it tore away in places and flopped down onto the swimming pool form. Stupid! He thumped a fist on the machine. Now he'd have to find another sheet and start over. He struck it once more.

"Do that again," Charles said.

Startled, Vernon looked at him. The intern's head had tilted back, staring at the heaters. He thumped the machine and glanced up, trying to see what had so enthralled him. The bank of glowing red looked normal to him. He hit it again, and several elements buzzed and went black. He blinked. Two more strikes, and they returned to normal.

"How about that?" Vernon said. He gave Charles a thumbs up and flipped the system off.

He left the intern to clean the plastic away once it cooled and traveled through the shop back to Ethan's office. He hoped his friend was in; he wanted to head home and start getting ready for tonight. I got to go get Ray. And fix dinner. And give him a bath. His head spun. So much to remember. He'd never really appreciated how much is wife did. Even when he was out of work, she took care of most of the household duties so he could go look for work or take the occasional odd job that might pop up. But now he was alone and had to take up the slack. Perhaps not for much longer. His pace quickened.

Ethan was indeed in his office, still pouring over paperwork. Paris Plastics had to run through a small forest every week to keep up with all of it. He looked up at Vernon's knock and nodded for him to enter. Ethan tossed his pen on the desk. Leaning back in his chair, he sighed and rubbed his eyes. "What you got?"

"Bad heating elements." Vernon sat down.

Frowning, Ethan rifled through the pages on his desk for several moments before pulling one free. "Says here we had those checked out, and they were all fine."

"Looks to be intermittent, perhaps a short or something. What's with the wiring around here?"

"What do you mean?"

"First the press, then the vacuum form, not to mention the house..." Vernon's jaw snapped shut.

"Something wrong at the house?"

"I didn't want to bother you with it, but the wiring's not the greatest in the world. I think it's just old, but if you leave the refrigerator open, it tries to kill the lights. Cheryl turned on the air conditioner and..." His voice cracked and faltered. He blinked back tears and swallowed past a lump in his throat.

Ethan leaned forward. "Did something happen to her?" he asked softly.

Nodding, Vernon took a long, ragged breath and whispered: "She's gone. Alexis, too."

"Gone? They're dead?" His friend jumped out of his seat and leaned over the desk.

"No, not dead. Just...gone."

"Don't do that to me, Vern." Ethan collapsed back into his chair and ran a hand through his hair. "She left and took your little girl?"

Vernon opened his mouth, then shut it. They're still there in Jennings Grove, you idiot! The night took them, and it's all your fault. Why couldn't you warn us about that place? The words threatened to spill out past his clenched jaw. He gripped the arms of his chair and tried to still his trembling. He wanted to get it out in the open. He wanted to let Ethan know what he had done to his family. But what good would it do? It wouldn't bring them back, and the personal consequences would be astronomical. At best, Vernon would strain a friendship and threaten his job. At worst, Ethan might well have him committed "for observation," as they said on TV. Neither outcome sounded particularly pleasant. "Yeah," he muttered.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Yeah, well, you know how it is. We've had a hard row to hoe these last few months. I guess she just couldn't take it anymore." Vernon shook his head. "Look, I need to go pick up Ray. They got a girl watching him, but she's got to go to class tonight."

Ethan looked at his watch a moment, then shrugged and nodded. "Do what you have to. Just give me a call later, OK? I think we need to talk."

"Sure thing." He shook Ethan's hand and hurried from the office. He barely paused to wave at Rose on his way out the door. Digging his keys from his pocket, he jogged through the parking lot and got in his car. Time to get ready for the coming night and the visitors he hoped to have.

_____Microsoft windows journal 1.5

Part I of Chapter 8 coming Monday!


Microsoft windows journal 1.5

Monday, December 31, 2007

Chapter 7: Back to Work, Part V

Vernon nodded and turned away. Eyeing the new mark on his map, he turned left past a couple of still presses. He looked back the way he had come as he rounded the corner to find Bob staring at him, arms folded and brows lowered. He waved at Vernon and went back to his work. Vernon frowned. What's his problem? He threaded his way through a gap between a couple of vacuum forming machines and found himself back on a main thoroughfare. His feet slowed. How could he bring them back? Toss them a rope? Tie a line around himself and hope he made it back in? He punched a bandsaw with a flat clang, earning him an odd look from its operator.

"Sorry," he muttered and shuffled past. A look at the map showed he had veered off course. Vernon stopped and turned in a slow circle, comparing nearby machines with the labels on his paper. After a few minutes of study, he found where he had left the path. He made his way back to an extruder and turned left. He looked at the page more often, but still moved slowly while his mind worried over the problem like a rat with a hunk of cheese.

By the time he reached the faulty vacuum form, better than half the surrounding machines sat quiet and empty. His head swiveled from side to side. Where did everyone go? He sidled up to a worker reviewing information on a computer and glanced over his shoulder at the screen. The clock said it was seven minutes past noon. Vernon stepped back quickly and rubbed his head. I've been wandering around this shop for three hours? No wonder Bob had been looking at him oddly. He looked down at his paper, found the machine circled in red and black and quickly located its solid counterpart just behind him. A sheet of bright pink plastic sat over a round form, just under a row of heaters. A skinny young man wearing a white shirt with black tie and pants sat on a stool at the vacuum form's blinking control panel. Frowning, Vernon walked to him and introduced himself.

"Oh!" It sounded almost like a goose honk in the kid's nasal voice. His eyes blinked rapidly behind his round glasses, and the fingers of his left hand kept trailing across his cheek and chin to pick at the few hairs brave enough to grow there. "I'm Charles Curtis." He stuck out his right hand.

"Pleased to meet you, Charles." He shook the hand once. "What brings you down here?"

" Mr. Roodschild told me to meet you here, Mr. Hamilton. He asked me to watch you work on this machine."

What's going on? His heart sped up. I just started yesterday! He tried to keep his voice light, but it sounded flat in his ears. "He got you checking up on me?"

"Oh, no, no, no. I'm an intern here. I'm studying industrial engineering down in Commerce. Mr. Roodschild said I might be able to learn something about troubleshooting equipment by working with you." The probing fingers tugged at a stray hair. "Is that OK, Mr. Hamilton? I don't want to cause any trouble or get in your way or anything."

"You're fine." Vernon waved it away and stifled a relieved sigh. "Call me Vern."

Charles bobbed his head like a nervous rooster. "What do you plan to do first?"

Wagging his finger in a come-here gesture, Vernon led the intern around the machine to a toolbox on the far side. He opened the drawers, removed a digital multimeter, a vacuum gauge, a few wrenches and screwdrivers and got to work.

Unscrewing the control panel's faceplate, he placed the meter's probes at various points while Charles pushed buttons and flipped switches. Nearby machines came to life as their operators returned from lunch. The men turned and watched Vernon and Charles from time to time. Vernon found it difficult to focus on the digital readout; the ghostly forms of Cheryl and Alexis kept getting in the way. Vernon shook his head and pushed the image away. It surfaced again and again, but he found it easier to concentrate as they moved through the wiring. Satisfied all the controls worked properly, he turned his attention to the vacuum system. The pump kicked on right away. The hoses were clear, and the gauge showed the system was sucking away just fine. Vernon snapped the pump off and sat down, hand on his chin.

As the pump cycled down and fell silent, Charles tapped him on the shoulder. Vernon turned and cocked an eyebrow, and the intern blushed. "I was wondering..." His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and pressed on. "Mr. Roodschild said all this had checked out already..." He trailed off, shrugging.

Vernon smiled. "And you're wondering why we just spent the last couple of hours wasting our time on it." The intern hemmed and hawed and finally nodded. "Rule number one: Always check it out for yourself. You never know what someone else has overlooked. Besides, if you're going to be poking around on a machine, it's a good idea you get to know her first." He nudged Charles in the ribs with an elbow. The skinny youth nearly fell over. "What do you say we kick her on and see what happens?"


Part VI of Chapter 7 coming Friday!

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Chapter 7: Back to Work, Part IV

Rose smiled at him as he walked through the door. Vernon waved and started by, pausing when she cleared her throat. He turned back and raised his eyebrows.

"Do you have that Social Security number?" she asked. He frowned. "Your son's number, remember? You need it to finish your paperwork."

Vernon rapped his knuckles on the desk and shook his head. "Sorry. Clean forgot about it. Still can't sleep – trying to get used to the new house. I'll bring it tomorrow, I promise."

"Alright – just keep in mind we can't finish processing your benefits without it. The longer you wait, the longer it's going to take."

"I know. I'll have it first thing in the morning."

Rose nodded and turned back to whatever paperwork lay on her desk. Vernon sighed and headed for the double doors, refusing to look at his reflection as he passed through. He found Ethan at his desk. His friend poured over paperwork in the exact same position as the last time Vernon had seen him, as if he hadn't gone home at all. Maybe he didn't. He'd been known to pull all-nighters in the past if the situation demanded it. Vernon cleared his throat. Ethan looked up. He glanced at his watch, pursed his lips, then waved Vernon in.

"Still not sleeping well?" Ethan asked. Vernon sat down across the desk from him and shook his head. "You need to go home?"

What is there for me at home? Or do you really care? He shook his head, trying to drive the thought away. His friend didn't deserve that. Not really. "Nah. I'll be fine. I look worse than I feel."

"If you say so." He looked and sounded uncertain. Vernon jumped in.

"I believe you said you had a problem with a vacuum mold?"

Ethan eyed him askance, but let himself be distracted. "Yeah. Sometimes it works just fine, sometimes all we get is a mess. We've checked all the controls, hoses and the vacuum pump several times. Everything checks out."

He rummaged in a drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper. He drew a couple of circles and a snaking line in red before handing it over to Vernon. The page showed a map of the building. Ethan had circled his office and the troubled machine's location and drawn a path between the two. "I'll see what I can figure out," Vernon said. He glanced at the paper and walked out into the shop.

Bangs and buzzing filled the air. The sound cut through nearly every attempt at thought. He wandered down aisles lined with machines and operators hard at work, glancing at the map every so often without really seeing it. His mind kept turning back to his wife and daughter. Ignore them, everyone said. Think of your son. Go out there and you'll never come back. How do they know? He stopped next to a machine twisting green wire for a Christmas tree's branches. Jennings Grove's residents seemed so sure of themselves, but how could they know for certain? They were too scared to even stare at the darkness cross-eyed. The idea they might actually try to find its limits seemed ridiculous. Chewing his lip, Vernon started walking again. The night in Jennings Grove was certainly a fearsome thing, but his family weren't part of the night, were they? They'd been dragged into it against their will, perhaps imprisoned somehow. Given enough time and effort, a person could bust out of any prison – especially if they had help. What if that's why Cheryl was reaching out, not for me to come to her, but for help? They kept telling him to think of Raymond, what was best for him. What could be better than to give him his mother and sister back? That's got to be it! Cheryl wouldn't want to take me and leave Raymond all alone. She wants to come back. But how do...

"You OK, Vern?" He jerked back, skidding to a halt just in time to avoid running over Bob Click. "You look kind of lost there."

Vernon blinked and looked around. His feet had taken him back to the drop press he'd been working on the day before. Both machines were up and running today. He found it hard to believe that had only been yesterday. Bob arched an eyebrow; Vernon forced a weak laugh. "Just lost in my thoughts. Guess I wasn't paying attention to where I was going."

Bob took the paper from his hand before Vernon could stop him. He looked at the red line wiggling across the map, glancing up at Vernon every few seconds. Finally, he chuckled and handed it back. "You need to be clear on the other side of the shop." He took a pen out of his shirt pocket and added a black snake to Ethan's red. "That'll get you where you need to go. Try not to get too lost on your way there."


Part V of Chapter 7 coming Monday!

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Chapter 7: Back to Work, Part III

A horn blared behind him. Moving the mirror back up, he saw a silver car sitting behind him. The driver flipped the bird at him with one hand and pointed at the road with the other. Vernon looked out the windshield. Traffic had thinned considerably. He waved at the following driver, stomped on the accelerator and whipped out onto the highway. Batteries and flashlights rattled on the floor. Vernon quickly caught up with traffic and wove through it, dodging in and out of lanes whenever an opening presented itself.

So intent was he on threading his path that Vernon never saw the state trooper until the flashing lights appeared in his mirror.

Sighing and shaking his head, Vernon pulled over and leaned over to retrieve his insurance card from the glove box. He flipped past maps and car repair bills, dug past car manuals and coupons. Where'd it go? I saw it in here not that long ago. As his fingers finally closed on the paperwork he sought, another thought occurred to him. Is it still current? Cheryl always took care of the bills. He usually didn't realize something was due until after she'd already paid it. Nothing I can do about it now. He took a deep breath and placed it in the seat while he pulled the wallet from his back pocket and took his license out. Vernon looked in the side mirror and saw a black trooper wearing the familiar tan shirt and cowboy hat walking toward the Camry, thumbs tucked into his black gunbelt. He couldn't see the trooper's eyes behind his sunglasses, but the bandage across his nose and scowl creasing his features didn't bode well for this particular stop.

"What seems to be the problem officer?" he said to himself, then shook his head. "Morning, officer. Is something wrong?" He rolled his eyes. "Well, of course something's wrong. You think he pulled you over to chat?"

The trooper tapped on his window. Vernon rolled it down and leaned his head out. "Good morning, Officer," he glanced at the name tag, "Williams. What's up?" He cringed at the stupid question and tried to cover it by handing over his license and insurance.

"That won't be necessary, Mr. Hamilton." Officer Williams' deep voice had a nasal quality. "I just plan to give you a warning this time."

How did he know my name? Vernon tried not to frown. He could have looked up my license plate number, I guess... He looked up at the trooper, who appeared to be trying to refrain from smiling. The cop touched his nose gingerly and grimaced. Vernon gasped. "Marvin?"

He laughed. "I was wondering how long it was going to take you to figure it out." His tone grew somber. "Seriously, Mr. Hamilton – you need to slow down. Even if you don't hurt someone, we like to patrol though this area, and you probably won't get so lucky next time."

"I know, I know. I just couldn't stand to be there any longer. I had to get out of Jennings Grove..." He bit his tongue. He'd already injured this man, why push his luck in insulting his hometown?

Marvin just nodded. "Bad night, I take it. I understand, believe me I do. But that's not something you can really explain to another trooper, now is it?"

"I guess not."

"I know how it feels to need to blow off some steam. Take my advice: get a hobby. I box three times a week."

"Thanks, Marvin." The trooper saluted and turned to walk away. Vernon chewed on his lip for a moment, then asked: "Why?"

"Why what?" He turned back to the window.

"Why just let me off with a warning? I broke your nose, for crying out loud. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I didn't get a ticket, but I don't understand it."

Marvin smiled sadly. "I'm not a Jennings Gove native either, Mr. Hamilton. I had a very hard time getting used to it after the night took my son. That was fifteen years ago, and I still find it hard not to resist going out there when I see him in the dark."

"Why resist at all?" Vernon asked softly.

"Because those left behind still need you." Marvin tapped the roof of the car. "That's a darling little boy you've got; I've never seen Kateri so taken with a little one. I know it's tempting, but you got to remember your duty to your son."

"I'll keep that in mind, officer." He stuck a hand out the window. "Thanks."

Marvin shook the proffered hand and walked back to his squad car. Vernon watched him go, then put the Camry back into gear and slipped back into traffic.

The drive into Paris passed smoothly. Vernon forced himself to stop chewing on his lip halfway there to keep from biting it off. Everyone keeps talking about my duty to Raymond, but what about my duty to Cheryl and Alexis? he thought as he parked. He sighed, climbed out of the car and walked into Paris Plastics.


Part IV of Chapter 7 coming Friday!

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Chapter 7: Back to Work, Part II

Twenty minutes later, he emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist and went to his bedroom. The overhead light had little to add to the sunlight coming through the windows, but he snapped it on anyway. He skirted the bed and paused with one hand on the closed doorknob while the other picked at peeling paint on the doorframe. A hard paint chip stabbed the soft skin under his fingernail. Vernon hissed in pain and dug the piece out with his teeth. Blood tinted the nail red. He wiped it on the towel, took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

Shadows trapped behind lashed out, coiling around his arms and neck. Yelling, Vernon slapped at the tendrils and pulled away from the closet. The darkness melted in the sunlight even as it touched him. Vernon stumbled across the room and bashed his hip against the dresser. He stood in place, panting and shivering for several minutes. Finally, he limped back to the closet, reached in slowly. He ripped a button-down shirt and a pair of jeans from their hangers and tossed them on the bed as he danced backward. He slapped the door. As it swung closed, he grabbed the doorknob and pulled it back toward him, leaving the closet open to the light.

I don't know that I'll ever get used to this place. He retrieved a pair of socks, undershirt and briefs from the dresser and donned the clothing quickly, shoving his legs into the pants and arms through the sleeves of his shirt. Bedsprings creaked as he flopped down on the mattress and put his shoes on. Bouncing up, he cast one last glance at the closet, shuddered and walked out of the house. The locked door slammed shut behind him.

The Camry still sat in the yard. Vernon stomped through the grass toward his car, booting a few late flowers in the process. He pictured Ware's head atop a dandelion as his shoe smashed the white ball and sent the pieces fluttering away. Fishing the keys from his pocket, he sat in the driver's seat and cranked the Toyota. It clicked but wouldn't turn over. Now what? Muttering under his breath, Vernon tried again. The starter chattered a moment. The engine whirred weakly, then caught. The tachometer sagged and bounced a moment before steadying out just underneath the one thousand RPM mark. He tapped the gas. The engine revved smoothly.

"Stupid battery," he grumbled. The thing had survived nearly four years in the harsh summers and brutal traffic of Houston. Over the last year, Cheryl kept telling him they should replace it. He could hear her nagging him about it as clearly as if she sat in the passenger seat. For crying out loud, Vern, you're the man of this house. Why do I have to tell you this stuff?

He stared at the front door. Please come back tonight. I won't answer the phone this time. I'll even unplug it. Just, please – come back, if only for a little while. Tearing his eyes away from the house, Vernon moved the transmission lever to drive. Tires tore short paths in the grass before they caught and pulled the car onto the driveway and out on the county road. He barely paused at the farm road before turning and accelerating down the winding highway. Paper crinkled as the paper bag fell over on the floor, spilling flashlights and packages of batteries to clatter across the vinyl mat. He kept his attention on the asphalt ahead, not bothering to check for emerging traffic or who might be following. The bag released more of its contents and the rattling from the floorboard increased with every hard curve.

As he passed through a residential area, Vernon slowed and slammed on the brakes as he approached a stop sign. Traffic streamed by on US 271. He grunted and tapped a beat on the steering wheel with his thumbs. "Move it, move it," he muttered.

When the busy cars showed no sign of listening, he sighed and swiveled the rearview mirror toward himself and ran fingers through his hair. It had dried and set after the shower, but he spotted a few errant strands that needed smoothing. Vernon paused mid-grooming and peered at his reflection. The little sleep he'd managed the night before had done him little good, if any. He hadn't paid much attention when brushing his teeth this morning, and apparently his decision to forego shaving hadn't been a good one. Face it, you look awful. To be honest, his grizzled face was only part of the problem. Dark smudges encircled his eyes, and his lids drooped. His mouth sagged in a frown, as if too tired to even think of another expression.

_____Microsoft windows journal 1.5

Part III of Chapter 7 coming Monday!


Microsoft windows journal 1.5

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chapter 7: Back to Work, Part I

A loud bang reverberated across the room. Vernon jumped. His eyes flew open, and he grabbed the arms of the recliner. He tried to stand, but something had slithered around his legs and held them together. Feet tugging in opposite directions, he writhed franticly in the chair in an unsuccessful attempt to free himself. The banging intensified. It finally got me. It… He looked down to find the blanket had wrapped around his waist and legs. Chuckling, he untangled himself, lowered the footrest and stood. A loud wail joined the knocking on the other side of the front door.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," Vernon muttered as he shuffled across the room. He yawned, stretched and pulled the door open.

Kateri Williams stood on the porch, Ray on one hip and her free arm raised to knock again. She dropped the hand and leaned sideways to pick the blue diaper bag up off the porch. She hitched the infant into the crook of her elbow and stepped past Vernon into the living room. He shut the door and turned to face the babysitter.

"I thought you would like to spend some time with your son before work," Kateri said, handing Ray over. The baby smiled and waved his arms in excitement as Vernon took him.

"Hey there, little man," he said softly. Resting on his forearm, Ray held Vernon's finger and giggled. He bounced the baby. "He feels heavier."

"That little boy loves to eat." Kateri laughed. "I barely got time to keep the bottles washed."

"That's good. I was worried about how he'd take the switch to the bottle. Cheryl never…" Voice cracking, he broke off and scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. He drew a long, ragged breath and tried to smile. "Sorry 'bout that."

"It's OK, Mr. Hamilton. We get that a lot around here." She rummaged in the diaper bag and pulled out a capped bottle. Formula sloshed in the bottom quarter. "He didn't get to finish eating this morning. Would you like to feed him?"

Vernon took the bottle, pulled the lid off and rubbed the nipple across the baby's lips. Ray hesitated a moment, then latched on, sucking greedily until nothing was left but air. Even then, Vernon had to yank the bottle free to burp Raymond over his shoulder. He lowered the infant and laid him across his arm once more. Raymond yawned, stretched his little arms and snuggled in to his father's chest. His eyes lowered, bounced open and shut again. The baby jerked once, then stilled. Within a few moments, he started snoring. Vernon laughed and wiped more tears from his face.

Kateri smiled. "He hasn't slept much in the last couple of days. Guess he missed you."

"I've missed him, too." He looked up. "But I'm glad he's had you to look after him. These last couple of days have been absolutely nuts. I don't know how long it's going to take to get used to this place."

"It'll probably take awhile, Mr. Hamilton." She stood and gently took Raymond in her arms. "Think you can be at our house around 5:30 to pick him up?"

Rising from his chair, Vernon scratched his head. "Sure, but I thought you'd be watching him for a few more days. I mean, I don't think I can – "

"Look, Mr. Hamilton, I know you've been through a lot, and I'm glad to help, but I've got classes and schoolwork to catch up on. He's your kid; you're going to have to start taking care of him." As he stood there, stuttering for some kind of response, Kateri turned and walked out of the house with the still-sleeping baby.

Vernon stared at the door for a moment, then shook his head and went into the kitchen. He sat at the table and absentmindedly munched a bowl of sugar-coated flakes. Would they return tonight? He'd been sure Cheryl was about to speak before Ware's untimely call drove her and Alexis away. What if they didn't come back? What if that was his only chance? His fist pounded on the table; his spoon rattled against the plastic bowl and milk sloshed over the rim. Country folk had a reputation for friendliness and neighborly concern; he'd never figured that meant they were busybodies. Why couldn't Ware just mind his own business and keep his nose out of it? He closed his eyes and saw the ghostly figures of his wife and daughter reaching out for him once again. Tears trickled down his cheeks. I should have just ignored the phone gone out to join them. I should have... The thought trailed off as the image of Raymond reaching for him arose. He opened his eyes and wiped the tears away. Travis Ware had been right about that much, anyway – he still had a son to take care of. Ray was his responsibility. Could Vernon abandon him even to rejoin Cheryl and Alexis? People always want to adopt babies.

"Shut up," Vernon growled. He threw the bowl across the room into the sink. Milk and cereal splashed across the counter, floor and window. He stared at the brown-flecked, white splatter for a moment, then shrugged and went to the bathroom to get ready to work. Plenty of time to clean it up when he got home.

_____Microsoft windows journal 1.5

Part II of Chapter 7 coming Friday!


Microsoft windows journal 1.5