Friday, January 25, 2008

Chapter 8: Lights, Part VI

Travis turned an abrupt about face and marched off the porch. He paused on the last step and said without turning: "Kateri said to tell you the baby's taking about four ounces in the bottle."

Vernon, one eyebrow arched, watched him cross the yard and disappear down the driveway. He glanced down at the baby. "You think I'm making a mistake trying to bring Mommy and Sissy back?" Raymond gurgled and smiled. "Me either, little man. Me either." He watched the setting sun for awhile, then bent down to pick up Ray's carrier and diaper bag, carried them into the kitchen and set both on the table next to the paper sack and rope.

Turning his attention to the diaper bag, Vernon opened it and pulled out a half-dozen bottles and three cans of powdered formula. He shook them until he found the lightest. He lifted the can and turned it around. "One scoop per two ounces of warm water," he muttered. "Hope I can remember how to do this." Alexis had been allergic to Cheryl's milk, and he'd stayed up many nights feeding her. But Raymond had been fine, and Vernon had not prepared a bottle in nearly three years.

He grabbed a bottle, went to the sink and turned on the tap. As he waited for it to heat, he let an ounce or so of cold water flow into the bottle. Raymond started crying. Hot water followed. He raised the bottle to eye level and poured a little out until the level fell to the four-ounce line. Back at the table, he dumped in two scoops, screwed the lid on and shook the bottle with one finger covering the nipple. Ray's cries rose to screams, and his kicking had set the carrier to rocking. The temperature of the few, quick drops dribbled on Vernon's wrist felt about right. He set the bottle down, picked Ray up and gave him the nipple. The baby's cries cut off as if with a switch. Chuckling, Vernon sat down in a chair and fed the infant an ounce at a time, burping him at each interval. Ray cried further the first couple of times the bottle was taken away, but he quieted as the formula disappeared. Once the last drop was gone and the last burp sounded, the baby drifted off to sleep. Vernon smiled and gently put him back into the carrier.

Shuffling to the counter, he rummaged through the cabinets, opening doors and grimacing as shadows scurried out of the light. They didn't seem so funny now that daylight had started to fade. Finally, he grabbed a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter to make himself a couple of sandwiches. A small bag of corn chips followed, washed down with some tea he found in the fridge. He tensed every time the refrigerator door opened. Although the lights dimmed slightly, they never flickered. Guess this old place is finally getting used to the load. Still, I hate to think what this place is going to be like in the summer when we got to run those air conditioners. He set his dishes in the sink, pulled Raymond out of the carrier and made a quick circuit of the house to make sure all the lights were still on before laying the baby on his own bed.

Vernon went back to the door-side window and finished cutting through the paint. Taking a deep breath, he placed both hands on the window, stood in a weightlifter's stance and heaved. The window creaked and he thought he felt it shift slightly. Muscles hummed in his arms and thighs. The frame lifted a fraction with a loud squeal and froze again. Vernon grunted, a deep-seated sound that rose to a drawn-out groan. The strain set a fire in his trembling limbs that grew as he pushed harder. As his strength faded, the wooden window frame moved. He shoved it several inches with a yell and collapsed. I did it. Eyes closed, he breathed in huge gasps against the floor. I need to go get the rope. He planted his hands on either side and tried to push himself upright. His arms wobbled but couldn't get his watery muscles to lift anything. Later. I'll do it later. His eyes drifted closed.

Raymond cried in the bedroom. Vernon groaned and rolled over, one arm draped over his eyes. "Just go back to sleep, kid, please." Ray didn't listen; his cries intensified.

Vernon drew himself to a sitting position with a grunt and forced himself to his feet. He shambled into the bedroom. The baby's arms and legs waved. Vernon picked Raymond up and put him over his shoulder, patting his bottom and making shushing noises. Raymond slowly stilled and quieted. Once he started snoring, Vernon set him back down on the bed. The baby immediately woke up crying again. Vernon sighed and picked him back up and went to the recliner.

Raymond took longer to settle down this time. He squirmed and whined as Vernon leaned back and stared at the slowly darkening sky. His eyes drooped along with the baby's.

A sudden, jarring pain in his left arm and Ray's screams jolted him awake. Jerking upright, Vernon clutched the baby to his side and looked around wildly. The overhead light fixture flickered. Shadows leapt from the corners and darkened windows, ebony claws reaching for them as the light faltered. By the time he had scrambled from the chair and started for the kitchen, more scratches marred his left arm and Ray's cheeks despite his attempts to protect the infant.

Vernon dashed across the living room. He nearly made it when a shaft of night fell across his path, cutting his feet out from underneath him. He tucked Ray unto his arm like a football and rolled into the kitchen. Dark knives caught and ripped at his shirt, but failed to halt his forward progress.

Trembling, he stood and checked Raymond. Bloody scratches marred the baby's wide-eyed face, but he seemed fine otherwise. The living room light flickered once more and steadied. No way I'm going back in there tonight. He hugged Ray to his chest and went to the sink. He whipped a rag out of a drawer beside the sink and wet it under the faucet. Gently wiping the scrapes on the baby's cheeks, he hummed a soft tune and kissed Ray's forehead.

Overhead, the kitchen light wavered and sputtered.


Part I of Chapter 9 coming Monday!

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Chapter 8: Lights, Part V

"Figures," he muttered and went into the kitchen, where he snatched a knife from a block on the counter and carried it back into the living room. He had nearly finished cutting the window free when Travis Ware tromped up the steps. The noise startled him and made him drop the knife. Doesn't that man drive anywhere? The mayor held Raymond's carrier and diaper bag. Why can't he keep his nose out of other people's business? He twisted around to make sure the curtain obscured the kitchen doorway. No point in letting the man see too much. Vernon retrieved the knife and placed it on the window sill, then walked to the door and leaned against the frame.

"Yes?" He sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

"Save it, Mr. Hamilton." Brow furrowed, Travis frowned at him a moment, then bobbed his head left and right, trying to peer past him into the house. "You'll not snow me like you did the Williams." The carrier swayed as he thrust it toward Vernon. Raymond giggled and waved his arms.

Straightening, Vernon sighed and took the baby, letting the carrier swing at his side as he grumbled, "Thanks a lot."

"You are quite welcome." He set the diaper bag on the porch between them. "You're a part of Jennings Grove now, Vernon. We look after our own here. That includes letting you know when you're making a mistake."

"You think I'm making a mistake?"

"You don't?"

"No, I don't." Vernon set the carrier down and folded his arms. "If anything, I was being more responsible than you. I'm not ready to take care of a baby and deal with this place. I decided to leave him with someone who was. I don't see how that's a mistake."

"Then let me shed a little light on the subject for you." Travis crossed his arms and offered a frown that more than matched Vernon's.

"Ask most people in Lamar County about Jennings Grove, and they'll tell you this is a tightly knit community. That's all about anyone knows about us here. But this is a tight community for a reason. To put it in terms you might understand, it's a precision machine. Every part has a function in the machine; if one part doesn’t work for some reason, that puts a strain on the other pieces. Enough stress, and the whole machine breaks down." He leaned over and jabbed a finger in Vernon's chest with every word. "Out here, that's usually fatal. I will not let you endanger the lives of these people just because you think you deserve special treatment."

"I don't want special..."

"Yes, you do. Either that or you're planning something you don't want anyone to know about." Vernon tried to still a flinch, but Travis must have seen something because he suddenly nodded and sighed. "I was afraid of this. You can't go to your wife and daughter. I am sorry for your loss, Vernon, but they are gone. Any attempt to reach out to them will leave your son an orphan. You think you're the first to want to go out into the night for just one more moment with a child or spouse?"

Vernon opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. Let him think what he wants. If he's off target, maybe I can keep him that way until I get them back. "Fine. Then what do you suggest?"

"Take care of your family, Mr. Hamilton. Be a man and stop shirking your duty. You can't do anything about the ones you've lost. You might as well get that through your skull now. Accept it and move on. You have a son who needs you. Foisting him off on other people isn't going to help you adjust; it's only going to make it harder."

"So your solution is to just throw me under the bus?"

"I am sorry if you see it that way, but if you recall, we've offered you a great deal of support – someone to watch your son while you're at work, money to help you get on your feet. We aren't leaving you to sink or swim, Vernon, but we do expect you to at least try to swim. So far, all you've done is splash around in the kiddy pool and complain that we've given you too much water."


Part VI coming Friday!

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Chapter 8: Lights, Part IV

Vernon rummaged around in the sacks and lined his lights up on the table. He pulled the first package of batteries out and wrestled with the package. When it refused to open, he walked to the other side of the kitchen and yanked drawer after drawer open, slamming each shut before moving on to the next. He finally found what he was looking for in a bottom drawer that hung up halfway. The scissors' bright orange plastic handles peeked out from the back. He reached for them, but in his haste knocked them out of sight. Growling, Vernon stuck his hand into the drawer and grabbed the scissors. He shuddered at what felt like a couple hundred caterpillars crawling across his skin and wrenched his hand out and up directly under the overhead light. He smiled grimly as the shadows withered and died. Too bad I can't do that with all of them. Looking at the cabinets, he scratched his chin. Wonder if Ethan would let me use glass doors.

Shaking his head, Vernon walked back to the table, sliced open several plastic packages and dumped batteries across the table. He unscrewed the flashlights and dropped D-cells inside before turning to the lanterns. When he was done, he had several unopened packages remaining, as well as close to a dozen loose rolling around the bottom of the sack. He left the bag on the table and, armed with two flashlights, started hunting through the house for a nice, stout place to tie down the rope.

He first stopped at the refrigerator, muttering to himself while he poked and pulled at the appliance from various angles. Finally, he shook his head and moved on. However heavy, he didn't want to trust their rescue to an icebox.

Though the back room wasn't really dark enough to require a flashlight, Vernon couldn't help a small thrill of satisfaction as the beam sliced through the shadows and sent them scurrying away. The feeling deepened as he flipped on the light. A quick look around the room soured his mood a bit, however. The only thing of any size in here was the blue hide-a-bed, and that seemed even less likely than the fridge. He turned on the bathroom light, but didn't even bother looking in there. What would he tie a rope to? The toilet?

He passed through both bedrooms with quick strides, agitation growing as he looked side to side without finding any suitable anchor points. Is there nothing in this house stable enough? He gave a sour grunt and flopped down in his recliner. Vernon stared out the still-open front door at the new porch. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the four-by-four posts that supported the roof. He slowly stood and walked across the floor to lean on the porch railing. He pounded and kicked the post nearest the steps. It thumped solidly. Nodding to himself, he turned back toward the door. In his mind, he was already tying the rope off. He paused just inside the house and pivoted on one heel. Solid as it was, that wooden column suddenly seemed a mere matchstick compared to the job he planned for it. Was it strong enough? Would it hold up to the force the night was sure to throw at them, or would it simply snap under the strain?

Shaking his head, Vernon punched the wall between door and window. He hissed at the pain blossoming in his fist. Not that the wall noticed, of course. Well, what did you think you were going to do? Knock the house down? He paused in sucking on bleeding knuckles. Maybe I can't find anything in the house strong enough, but what about the house itself? I'd like to see whatever's out there try to pull this old thing apart.

Vernon sidestepped to the closest window and drew the blinds up. The ancient lock squealed as he twisted it around. He placed both hands on the lower half and heaved. It wouldn't budge. Grunting, he cocked one leg back and pushed harder. He grimaced with the effort, but still the window refused to open. Panting, he straightened and looked around the window. Layers of peeling, white paint glued it to frame.


Part V coming Monday!

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Chapter 8: Lights, Part III

His approach had apparently been noticed. As he climbed out of the car, the front door opened and Kateri walked down the concrete steps. She held Ray's carrier in one hand and a bulging diaper bag over the other shoulder. Her thin braids swung with every step. Vernon stood behind the open door, elbows resting on the roof of the car and the doorframe. As she got closer, he saw Raymond was asleep in the carrier. He fought to keep his face still; inside, he felt as bouncy and giddy as he had the night before his wedding. I guess that's appropriate. This is kind of like winning her all over again. Sure, their marriage had had its problems, but that would all change once he got Cheryl back tonight. What could possibly compare to the trials of Jennings Grove? He forced his foot to stop tapping.

Kateri stopped at the hood and smiled. "You're an hour early, Mr. Hamilton. To be honest, I wasn't certain you were going to show up at all." She stepped closer with the bag outstretched, paused and frowned when she caught sight of his expression. "What's the matter? Did something happen at work? Are you OK?"

Vernon shook his head and made sure his face retained its wooden expression. Must be doing better than I thought. "I've been thinking about it all day, and I'm just not ready for this. Could you please watch him one more night?"

"We've been over this already, Mr. Hamilton. I have things I need to get done myself. This is your responsibility." She gave the diaper bag a small jiggle.

"I know, and I'm sorry, wife..." His voice cracked, and he buried his face in his hands. When he looked up again, her scowl had softened somewhat, and she'd let the bag dropped. If someone isn't sure about doing what you want, take the choice away from them. That had been one of Herb Franklin's favorite pearls of wisdom, and it had never seemed more apt. He scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand and muttered: "I'm...I'm sorry...I just can't..." He dropped into the driver's seat, slammed the door shut and threw the transmission into reverse. Tires squealed on the concrete driveway. Kateri's eyebrows climbed nearly to her hairline, and she jumped back out of the way. Her mother came to the door and stared, open mouthed as he backed into the yard, then raced out and back onto the gravel road.

Vernon made it to his driveway before he started laughing. Mrs. Hutchins would never believe it. His high school drama teacher had said he'd never make a good actor, that he didn't care enough to make his role believable. They sure bought that one, didn't they? He caught sight of the coil of rope laying in the seat and swallowed his mirth. Guess I finally found something to care about.

Pulling into the drive, he maneuvered the car around to the front of the house and parked it. Vernon grabbed the bags and rope coil and dashed up the stairs. He threw the door open and snapped on the light before walking in. The bulbs flickered a moment before flaring to life. Weak shadows fled across the room, into other rooms, corners and under furniture. They retreated further when he walked into the kitchen. He let the curtain fall behind him and flipped the switch.

The darkness deepened as it condensed and folded upon itself. It writhed in an agitated fashion at the light's edges. He chuckled at the shadows' impotence as they lashed out toward him, only to fall back under the lights glowing overhead. The darkness was deepest in the two doorways in the kitchen's back corner, though still faint enough that he could see into the back room and the second bedroom to the left. He set the bags on the kitchen table.


Part IV coming Friday!

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Chapter 8: Lights, Part II

By the time he got to the far corner, Theron was not only waiting for him, but he'd already measured out and coiled the rope. He finished securing the large ring with masking tape, lifted it with a grunt and handed the rope over. Vernon stuffed both lights under one arm and awkwardly slung it over his other shoulder. He thanked the old man, who nodded and shuffled away. Vernon clutched the items and made his way to the counter. He waited impatiently in line behind three other customers, two men purchasing power tools and a woman pushing a cart loaded down with potting soil. The lanterns kept trying to slip out of his arm, and every time he pushed them back in place with his free hand, the rope slid down to his elbow. The woman turned back frequently to watch the jerking, shuffling dance, usually with an eyebrow raised at the steady stream of angry mutters flowing from his mouth.

The line moved slowly. The first guy's drill wouldn't ring up on the scanner, and the second argued about the price of his jigsaw for ten minutes before storming out of the store. The woman waited until the last minute to even begin making out her check out, then Gary had to step away from the register to help get the bags in her car. Grumbling, Vernon let the rope slide down his arm to his hand and slapped it on the counter. The lanterns picked that moment to jump free of his grasp; he spent several exciting seconds juggling the pair until he managed to snag both by their handles and deposit them next to the coil of rope. He frowned at them for a moment, then went down another aisle to get several more packages of batteries.

Gary had returned and started ringing the items up by the time Vernon got back to the front. He dumped the batteries on the counter and waited for the numbers to stop flashing. He paid the bill, hoisted the rope over his shoulder and took the paper bag.

"Say, could I get a couple more of those sacks? I forgot to take the flashlights in yesterday, and the bag broke in my car."

"Sure thing." He tucked a pair of bags inside with the batteries and lanterns. "We going to see you tomorrow?"

"I certainly hope not," Vernon replied with a laugh. "I think I've brought enough business your way for a while."

"Can't blame a guy for trying." Gary chuckled. "Well, you know where we are if you need anything."

"You guys'll be the first place I stop." He waved and walked outside, blinking in the afternoon sunlight. He set the rope in the passenger front seat and placed the bag on top of it. Pulling the two flattened sacks out and unfolding them, he placed on inside the other and scooped the batteries off the floor, followed by the flashlights, which he set gently on top of the D-cells. The doubled bag went on the floor, and he walked around to the other side and climbed in.

Once he got out on the highway, Vernon set his cruise control at sixty and left it there. He ignored the horns, dirty looks and birds flipped his way. He felt doubly glad of Marvin's warning from that morning as he passed a quick succession of patrol cars, both state and county, between Paris and Arthur City. Looks like they all want to crack down today, he thought as he sat at the intersection for FM 197 in Arthur City. Traffic cleared quickly and allowed him to turn.

He cast frequent glances at his hardware store purchases. He might have gone a little overkill with the lights, but after tonight he expected to have more people to protect. First, I've got to make sure I don't have any distractions tonight. He pulled up outside the Williams' house and sat with the engine running while he stared at the two-story brick home and tried to figure out what he'd tell the babysitter. With its deep red masonry and white trim, it looked nearly picture-perfect. The only thing he could see wrong with the image was a complete lack of trees or even shrubbery. I might want to get rid of that pecan tree out in the yard. Certainly looks to cut down on the shadows.


Part III coming Monday!

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Chapter 8: Lights, Part I

Vernon swung his Camry into the parking lot of Callahan & Son, coming to a halt in the first available spot. Batteries and flashlights rattled around on the floorboard. He climbed out and walked inside.

"Back for more flashlights?" Gary Callahan asked from behind the register. He rapped a beat on the counter with his knuckles. "Kids worn the other ones out already?"

Vernon gaped at him. What was he talking about? It took a few minutes of blank staring before he recalled the previous day's conversation. He coughed into his fist and tried to smile. It felt weak and misshapen on his face. "Nah. They're fine. Actually, I came in for some rope."

"How much you need?"

"I don't know." He hadn't thought of that. How far outside would he have to go to get them? Where would he tie it off to make sure the rope was secure? "A couple hundred feet?"

Gary whistled. "That's a bunch of rope. How strong do you need it?"

"Uh, maybe that stuff people use to pull cars?" Overkill, maybe, but he doubted the night would let them go easily. He didn't want it snapping in the struggle. Gary looked at him oddly. Mind racing, Vernon had a sudden burst of inspiration. "I'm going to put up a tire swing. My wife's kind of paranoid about safety. She won't be satisfied unless I bring home the stoutest rope you got."

"My mom was the same way." He laughed. "But you'd only need a dozen feet or so for a tire swing."

"Yeah, I know. I just figure I might as well get plenty while I'm here. Seems to me that kind of rope might come in handy at times – car dies, having to haul loads or hoist stuff, that sort of thing. You sure don't want to have to run to the store when you need it."

"You got me there." He pointed to the far back corner. "Rope's back there, along with the chains. I'll have Dad meet you."

Vernon paused at the mention of chain. Steel would be stronger than rope. Then he thought about a great dane-Irish setter mix he'd had as a boy. The dog had been about as bright as a doorknob, but immensely strong. He broke every single chain they'd ever bought; Ben would simply lunge against the links until something gave way and he could jump the fence and roam the neighborhood again. But the mutt had never managed to snap a rope. Dad said it had something to do with the way it would stretch instead of breaking.

He hooked a left down the nearest aisle, glancing at tents and other camping equipment. He slowed when he reached the lanterns, miniature lighthouses stacked in neat little rows. He stopped and stared, index finger tapping on his chin. I got plenty of flashlights and batteries. He shook his head, turned to go and took two steps before backing up. He found himself staring at the lanterns again. On the other hand, you never know when a light's going to go bad. Besides, how long are those batteries going to last out there if they're running all the time? On the plus side, the lanterns would cast a wider light than the flashlights' fixed beam. One hand skipped along the shelf, tapping the metal bases one by one. He stopped at the electric lanterns and cast his glance from those to the oil-fed lights. He'd never fully gotten the hang of those kerosene lanterns with their little flammable bags, but he wasn't sure how much he trusted one of those battery-operated jobs. They may not be as bright. Still, the last time he'd tried to use a gas lantern had been on a camping trip with Cheryl before Alexis was born. He had burned the hair off his right hand and nearly lost his eyebrows that evening. Vernon shuddered and grabbed a pair of the electric lights before hurrying off around the corner.


Part II coming Friday!

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