Once Upon A Flash Drive

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Chapter Eight

“Tears shed for another person are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of a pure heart.”
~José N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love

Lake Shafer . . .

Lara tapped gently on Brian’s Rafferty’s office door.

“It’s open. Come on in.”

Lara stuck her head through the doorway. “Am I too early?”

“No. My desk is clear and I don’t need to leave here until three.” Brian motioned her to the visitor’s chair.

“Thanks for your time.”

“Always a pleasure. How was the Hazelton trip?”

“That’s kinda why I’m here. The trip was an eye-opener, and not in a good way. As supportive as my family is, they can’t be objective about some of my issues. I need advice, not sympathy. The very last thing I need is another hug or a pat on the head.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Do you remember how jumpy I was the day we met?”

“Under the circumstances, your reaction wasn’t unexpected.”

“Before I realized you were a Shafer Lake resident; I was ready to call for the police.”

“Better safe than sorry is not a bad policy, Lara. Especially the situation that you and your mom find yourselves in.”

“Mom and I came to Shafer Lake primarily for the privacy, but I think we were also trying to escape from the sense of unease we were experiencing in Hazelton.

“Up until Dad’s disappearance, I loved everything about Hazelton and our home. I never felt unsafe. Suddenly, I felt an underlying sense of evil everywhere I turned. I no longer recognized my life or the people in my life. Because no one could give us answers, both Mom and I were angry and frustrated.”

“Losing a loved one is never easy, and you had the added stress of uncertainty. Still do.”

“Dad and I were close. When I finally accepted that his absence was permanent, I was sure that I would die from the pain. Even when the pain eased, I craved privacy. Intellectually, I knew that coming to Lake Shafer was a way to avoid reality, but it was easier to take the road that was less painful. I’ve been happy here, but going back to Hazelton made me realize that I can’t avoid dealing with our friends and neighbors in Hazelton.”

“I take it that your trip didn’t go the way you planned.”

“If I'm completely honest, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Grandpa suggested that we go and Mom didn’t object. So, we made the trip. It’s difficult to explain my feelings. Have you ever walked into a familiar room and everything is exactly the way you remember it, yet something’s off?”

“I know the feeling.”

“That’s how I felt. Hazelton and my friends were unchanged, but I no longer fit into their world. It was almost like reading a book. You know the people and the settings, but you are removed from the action.”

Brian nodded. “Feelings of displacement.”

“I suppose. A place that was once friendly suddenly becomes unfriendly. It was an unsettling feeling.”

“Grief brings out our strongest emotions. It helps if you can find a place where you feel safe and secure. I’d like to try an experiment if you are game.”

She nodded.

“The first step is to close your eyes and relax. Picture a peaceful meadow or a quiet bubbling mountain stream. Maybe a sunrise or sunset, a sandy beach at dawn or a mountain top awash with wildflowers. Any place that makes you happy. A place where you feel content. Don’t try to analyze your thoughts and don’t organize them. As soon as you feel completely relaxed, say anything that pops into your head.”

“My mind won’t stop racing.”

“It will. Count to ten slowly. Listen to the crickets, a nightingale or the hoot of an owl. Now . . . breathe deeply.”

She did. After several seconds of silence, she spoke. “I hate it that Mom is in Hazelton alone while I’m in Lake Shafer wrapped up in a safe and secure cocoon. Despite my guilt feelings, I’m not ready to break out of my cocoon. I hate being afraid. I hate being a coward. I’m afraid for myself and afraid for my family.”

“All of those feelings are quite natural, Lara. Are you a person of faith?”

She nodded. “I am, but right now God seems far away.”

“He’s right beside you. If you know your Bible, Lara, you know that your mom is not alone. You don’t have to be in Hazelton to support her. Support comes in many forms, one of which is prayer.”

“I have been praying for her, and I’ve been praying for my own peace of mind.”

“Then, you will find it, Lara.”

After a few moments, she said, “I’m more relaxed. Can I open my eyes?”

“Five more minutes. I’ll tap when the time is up.”

When he gave the signal, she opened her eyes. “Now what?”

“Whatever comes to your mind.”

She stared at the ceiling for a few seconds before speaking. “A week ago, I was eager to get back to my life in Hazelton. Now that I’ve been there and spent time with my best friends, Sara and Kinsey, I don’t think I’m ready. Their idea of fun is going to the mall. Their only interests are boys and shopping. Shopping for stuff I don’t need or want seems . . . I don’t know. Pointless and selfish.

“Right now, my friend’s lives, their likes and dislikes and their goals seem frivolous. I still like them, but we’re out of sync.”

“Do you have a boyfriend in Hazelton? If so, how has he reached out to you?”

“I have a good friend who happens to be male. Shortly before dad disappeared, Ben started dating a girl named Kim Blackburn. She has a reputation for being jealous, so I’m not sure whether Ben’s avoidance of me is because of Kim or because of Dad’s disappearance.”

“Have you and Ben talked?”

“No. I spotted him at the mall. He ducked into a shop.”

“Maybe he didn’t see you.”

“He saw me. It was a candle shop. Ben has sneezing fits when he’s around candles.”

“What can I say? Sometimes, teenage boys run rather than get entangled in relationship issues. They are masters at avoiding unpleasant situations.”

When she remained silent, Brian said, “Let me assure you that the things you are experiencing are normal. Trauma changes people. Some friendships end when there’s a tragedy, theirs or a friend’s tragedy. Some friendships are strengthened and some are put on hold. Only time will tell about your friendships with Sara, Kinsey and Ben.

“No matter what happens, friendships—old and new—are important and add meaning to your life. For now, concentrate on your family issues. How did you find your mom?”

“When my grandparents and I arrived in Hazelton, it was obvious that Mom was preoccupied. She and Grandpa Sam stayed closeted most of Saturday. They were wading through a maze of legal issues that she’s dealing with because Dad hasn’t been officially declared dead. When they finally appeared, they both looked worried. Mom and Grandpa both assured me that the issues weren’t insurmountable, but I’m not sure I believe them.”

Brian asked. “Does your mom have a lawyer?”

“She does, but she doesn’t understand the legalese. I think that’s why she and grandpa were going over the documents.”

“Since you don’t have any legal experience, you are going to have to trust qualified people who do.”

“I know.” Lara sat staring into space. Finally, she said, “Then, there’s Aunt Maddie. You and Grandpa are friends, so I’m assuming that you know who she is.”

“The illustrious Maddie Sorenson. I’ve read one of her books, even though I don’t usually read crime fiction. She’s an excellent writer.”

“She was a writer. After the accident, she changed from being a nitty gritty woman into a timid rabbit. For the most part, she remembers events that occurred twenty years ago, but she can’t remember what she had for breakfast.

“I’d always admired her work ethic, but I didn’t get to know her until my thirteenth birthday. That’s when we bonded. I spent a lot of time with her during the next year. Then she was in a serious accident. Since then, she hasn’t been the same. I miss the woman she was, and I don’t know how to rebuild our friendship. With Dad gone, I feel as though two major pieces of my life have been stolen from me.”

Brian remained silent.

“I was looking forward to seeing Aunt Maddie while I was in Hazelton, but she was suffering from a migraine. She woke up with a mild headache on Friday morning, and by Friday evening the migraine was full-blown. When the headaches occur, she’s incapacitated for days.”

“What about medication?”

“Her doctors have been trying to control the migraines with medication, but so far, nothing has worked.”

Brian didn’t comment.

“I met Travis Silverstein, the investigator Mom hired. That was the highlight of the trip.”

“So, what’s he like?”

“Maybe I’ve watched too many police dramas on TV. I expected a burly, sharp-tongued, cigar smoking guy. Boy, was I wrong. He’s intelligent, clean shaven and kinda handsome for an older guy. Grandpa was impressed, and he’s not easily impressed.”

“Is Travis optimistic about the investigation?”

“It’s too soon to know.”

“Closure would be good for your family. I never knew your dad, but the locals speak highly of him.”

“He was a good Dad, and I loved him.” She paused before adding, “As I’m sure you can tell from my ramblings, I’m angry at the world right now. Angry that a good man is gone. Angry that my relationship with my aunt has changed. Angry that my safe, sane life has turned into a nightmare and angry that there are people in the world who are greedy, mean-spirited and corrupt. I’m struggling to find peace among the chaos.”

“It’s okay to be angry, Lara. The key is to find a way to release the pain and the anger without resorting to the use of drugs and alcohol or self-destructive actions. Physical activity can be beneficial. There are other slightly more unorthodox methods like throwing darts at a photograph of your worst enemy, hitting a punching bag and writing nasty letters that are never delivered. Did you by any chance see The King’s Speech with Colin Firth?”

She nodded.

“Remember the profanity scene?”

Lara said. “I’ll never forget it. That was the moment when I truly felt his pain and frustration.”

“Profanity is an instinctive vent when we humans are excessively angry, but it’s easy to let profane words become part of our everyday vocabulary. In the king’s case, profanity worked. I’m using profanity as an illustration, not a recommendation. You’ll find what works for you. Until you do, I’m here.”

“I think I just needed a sounding board.”

“I have one suggestion that might help you rebuilt your relationship with your aunt. Share your artwork with her. If she’s like most patients recovering from a serious injury, she needs something positive to think about. You’re gifted, Lara, and that gift has the power to brighten the lives of other people, not just children. Even if she doesn’t respond immediately, you will be better person for having made the effort.”

“Thank you for your suggestion. As soon as I’ve completed the illustrations for A Home for Tina, I’ll ask her to critique my work.” She glanced at her watch. “Look at the time. I hope that I haven’t made you late for your appointment.”

“No problem. My appointment is out your way. Do you need a ride?”

“No thanks. I have my bike.”

Lara had made the turn onto Main Street when she felt the first drops of rain. By the time she reached the bicycle rack in front of Jacoby’s Pharmacy, her t-shirt was plastered to her body and the rain was coming down in sheets. She charged down the sidewalk to Backstories, less than half a block away, and ducked inside.

Mary looked up from the flyer she was reading and laughed. “You look like you took a shower in your clothes, Lara. You’ll find a towel in the ladies’ room.”

Lara dried her arms and legs and fluffed up her hair. There wasn’t much she could do about her wet t-shirt. Even though she looked like a bedraggled cat with her unruly hair, the rain shower had been refreshing. A cool rain was a blessed relief during the hot muggy days of late summer. When she looked halfway presentable, she joined Mary at the check-out desk.

Mary pointed to a stool behind the counter. “While there are no customers, I could use some help deciding which new authors to promote during the upcoming holiday season.” She held up five flyers. “I’ve narrowed it down to five, but I need to eliminate three more. Read the reviews and tell me what you think.”

Once seated, Lara skimmed through the flyers, eliminated three and reread the remaining two reviews. When she finished, she handed the two flyers to Mary. “If I had to choose, it would be these two. The illustrations are delightful and the stories teach a lesson without being preachy.”

“Those are the two authors I was leaning towards. Thanks for reaffirming my decision. How’s your book coming? Brian says that he’s thrilled that your Tina character had taken up residence in St. Paul’s.”

“Can you believe it. He likes my sketches of the church. He’s asked me to do two to hang in his office.”

“It’s not just the church sketches that he likes. He thinks that you have a knack for storytelling.”

“You know Brian; he believes that most of the problems teens face could be solved if they had a support team. He’s taken it upon himself to be part of mine.”

She shook her head. “True, but Brian doesn’t hand out compliments unless they are deserved. After my conversation with him, I came up with an idea that I’d like to run by you. There is a book fair in Florida the last of August. If you would like to attend, I’d like for you to go as my guest.

“Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a great many authors and publishers. It would be my pleasure to introduce you to some of the people that can help pave your way toward getting your book published. I’ve said this to you before, but it’s worth repeating. Publishing is a tough business that takes fortitude, talent and persistence. I’ve been told by my author friends that networking is the key to getting that first book published.”

Lara was speechless. The offer was exciting, but at the same time scary. She doubted that her work was ready for publication, and she wasn’t sure that she was self-confident enough to promote her work. Especially, since her dad’s disappearance. She felt exposed when she was in a crowd. And, there was the matter of the investigation. She wouldn’t feel safe until Travis’ investigation was complete, or the guilty party was behind bars.

At the same time, she didn’t want Mary to think that her hesitation was because of a lack of enthusiasm. She took the easy way out. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, but trips take money. Until dad’s estate is settled, Mom and I are counting our pennies.”

“Travel costs are built into my business expense account. Sam and Dora have agreed to take care of your personal expenses.”

“You talked to my grandparents about your offer?”

“I didn’t want to mention the trip to you until I was sure that I had your family’s approval. Since your mom is in Hazelton, I spoke to Dora. She and Sam are 100 percent behind the trip. That is, of course, if your mom approves. If you are interested, it will be up to you to convince her that it is an opportunity that you don’t want to miss.”

“Right now, I’m overwhelmed.”

“You deserve the opportunity. If you decide to go, be sure to bring your illustrations by. I’d like to see them before the book fair.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the jangling bell over the door. Dot Meyers and Ruth Stapleton’s laugher rang out as they entered the shop. Dot caught Mary’s eye. “Mary, hope you allow slightly wet customers to browse. Ruth and I got caught in a rain shower.”

Mary said, “My customers come in with wet bathing suits and sand in their sandals. Serves me right for opening a bookshop in a resort town. There are towels in the ladies’ room.”

As Dot and Ruth marched off toward the ladies’ room, Lara said, “Looks like the sun’s peeking out from behind the clouds, so I’ll be on my way. Thanks for letting me read the reviews, Mary. And, special thanks for the Florida offer. I’ll talk to mom this week and let you know.”

As Lara pedaled toward the lake house, she felt as renewed as the rain-washed landscape. She had no illusions that the euphoria would last, but she enjoyed the moment. The future might not be certain, but the gorgeous double rainbow that ached the sky was a promise of better things to come.

She found her grandpa reading on the back porch. He seemed relieved to see her. “There you are. Wondered if you got caught in the rain shower.”

“I did, but I ducked in Backstories.”

He broke into a smile. “And . . .”

“Does everybody but me know about the book fair?”

He laughed. “No. Your grandma and I are the only people Mary talked to. She left the specifics for you to share.”

“I left a flyer about the fair on the hall table. It’s a terrific opportunity, but I’m not sure that I’m up to it.”

“It’s your decision, honey.”

A sliver of icy fear made her shiver. “It’s a big step. How do I know that the editors and publishers won’t declare my work unprofessional? I can’t deal with any more disappointment right now.”

“If they reject your work, you’ll be in good company. I’ve read that authors face rejection several times during the course of their career. I guess it depends on how determined you are to make your dream come true. What if your work isn’t rejected? Or, what if you make a contact that will help you in the future?”

“I guess that’s possible.”

“Of course, it’s possible. A little constructive criticism might be exactly what you need to grow as an author and illustrator.”

“That’s an excellent point. Is that one of Aunt Maddie’s books you are reading?”

Two Steps Back. I forget what a good writer she is until I reread one of her novels.”

“She was an excellent writer. It’s too bad that her writing days are over.”

“Yes, it is. Do you usually read a writer’s acknowledgments?”

“Not always.”

He handed her the book. Read the third paragraph.”

“Hm-m. Makes sense since the book is about a rogue agent. What’s so surprising about thanking an agent anonymously?”

He said, “Not a thing, unless you happen to know the unknown person. The person she doesn’t name is Wesley Tillman.”

“Wesley? Chris’ dad? No kidding. Are you sure?”

“This morning, I drove over to Wadesboro to pick up a part for the Corabelle. I invited Wesley to tag along. As much as I enjoy his company, my reason for inviting him was to explore the possibility of getting the FBI involved in Charles’ case. He didn’t immediately shut me down, so I told him about my frustrations. No motive, his lack of personal enemies and no clues.

“His ears perked up when I mentioned Travis’ theory that there’s a connection between Maddie’s accident and Charles’ disappearance. Maddie’s name was the hook that reeled him in. He knows her. Has known her for years, although he lost touch with her during his wife’s illness. He didn’t know about her accident, and he didn’t know that your dad was her nephew.”

Lara’s eyes widened. “How did that friendship come about?”

“It’s an interesting story. A number of years ago, Wesley stopped in a friend’s bookstore for a chat. Maddie was there doing a book signing for Fast Forward. When she heard that Wesley was an agent, she invited him to lunch.

“She had begun doing the research for Two Steps Back and needed an FBI insider to make sure that her depictions were believable. They talked for hours. By the time she left for the airport, she had a notebook full of information and his contact numbers. When questions arose, she called him. They spoke several times during the eight months it took her to complete the manuscript for Two Steps Back.”

“Fascinating. Why omit his name?”

“His wishes.”

“I guess that makes sense. So, they stayed in touch until Shannon’s illness?”

“They exchanged Christmas cards. Then, Maddie’s accident occurred. As I said, Wesley hadn’t heard about the accident. If he had known, he might have made an effort to contact her.”

“What about now? Will he see her?”

“It’s up to Maddie. If she wants to see him, he’ll pay her a visit when he’s in Hazelton. He’s made appointments to see Travis and Lt. Traynor on Thursday.”

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