Andrew was typing like mad, the words flowing off his fingers. Portraits of Pain was nearly complete. Another book in his Forest Shadows thriller collection and this one was good. His other novels, though well written, didn’t hold a candle to POP. Another dozen pages and he could email his agent the rough draft. Then a much-needed break. Later he’d start the madcap editing. He jumped when long, slender fingers caressed his shoulders and drifted down the collar of his shirt.
“Sorry,” his fiancé Vanessa said through muffled giggles. “I thought you heard me come in. Are you at a good stopping point?” Andrew pushed the keyboard back, stood and cracked his back. He leaned forward and lightly kissed the raven-haired woman, then looked down at the chair.
He’d been writing from that chair for a good fifteen years, starting when he was twelve. Caleb’s grandfather had been a semi-successful author, and when he passed, he left it to Andrew – Andy at the time – as an inspiration to continue his own wordsmithing. At first, he found the old high-backed chair creepy. The thought of sitting on a piece of furniture that another writer had died on was unsettling. When he finally settled down and put pen to paper, or thoughts to keyboard, the results were extraordinary. His short story ′Light Between the Shadows’ got him an ‘A’ in English. He later polished it and sold it to Anthology of Horror. His first check, albeit only $25, made him a pro.
Now the old chair was patched, glued, stapled, and cobbled together. It no longer swiveled, rolled, or reclined. It was just a patchwork chair in its final death throws. But the magic remained.
“This is as good a spot as any. Just wrapping up the last loose ends of Portraits. Jasper will be happy to have the rough draft to him before the deadline.”
“And shocked! Try not to kill your agent; they’re tough to replace.” Vanessa smiled and nodded toward the door. “Most of our friends are here. I’ve put your books by the table and Caleb has the grill ready.”
“Thanks.” Andrew rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. He was subconscious of the thin, almost bald spot on the back of his head. His mom always said it was a birth defect, a skin problem when he was born, and hair had never grown. But there were many times he wondered about it. He picked up the glass of wine beside his desk and took a deep drink. Wine really wasn’t his thing, but it did seem to perk him up after writing. “Okay, let’s go entertain the masses.” Andrew winked, and his fiancé slipped her arm inside his.
Andrew’s house was a rough-hewn cozy log cabin sitting high on a bluff over the Socastee river basin. Centuries-old cypress trees grew along the edge of the river, their limbs heavily laden with Spanish moss that waved in the breeze. A wide deck wrapped the house, providing unopposed views of the forest and river below. His best writing had occurred during the four years he had lived on the bluff.
Andrew inhaled deeply, savoring the scent of steaks on the grill.
The back door swung open, and Caleb marched in with a tray of sizzling meat. “Sorry man gotta get.” He fist-bumped Andrew as he passed. “Got some shenanigans going on in town and I’m on-call.”
“C’mon back when you’re done. I think we’re going to be up until late tonight. I’ll save you some celebratory cake.”
“You do that, man.”
Vanessa took the platter from Caleb and set it on the kitchen’s center island.
“Hey, you going to do any readings?” Caleb asked.
Andrew tensed and shrugged slightly. “I don’t know, probably. It just seems to drain me of late. But if I have a beer…”
“Or twelve!” Caleb added with a laugh, his white teeth flashing against his lean face. The fleshy cheeks of youth, now long gone. His face and body chiseled from hours in the gym. He clipped his badge to the edge of his belt and grabbed the service weapon he kept on a shelf above the stove.
“Or twelve,” Andrew agreed with a sheepish smile. He took a deep breath. “The twinges have gotten really intense lately. Sometimes a twelve-pack is what I need to calm them down.”
“I hear ya. Take care Andy-Man and I’ll try to catch back up with you guys.”
“You too. And Caleb,” Andrew paused as his childhood friend turned, “remember to duck.” Caleb flashed a quick thumbs-up and hurried out the door.
“So,” Vanessa said as she watched Caleb slide behind the wheel of his county-issued vehicle. “Now that our chef has left the building, who’s going to manage the grill?”
“Yours truly! You know my B&B specialty - bloody or burnt. Nothing in between.”
“You are a simple man,” Vanessa said smiling.
“You know it.” Andrew exchanged the platter of meat for a clean plate and headed out the door to the deck where hungry friends were waiting to eat. Despite his professing to having the talent of a poor fast-food cook, the remaining steaks and foil-wrapped ears of corn came off the grill nicely.
Once the beer had started to flow and the steaks were consumed, Andrew stood and tapped the side of his plastic cup with a plastic knife to get everyone’s attention. It took a few moments for the conversations to cease, and when it did, he delivered the news he’d been holding.
“I know you guys are all wondering why I’ve called you here tonight. It’s because I’d like to talk to you guys about a new business venture I’m trying to promote – AMWAY!” The deck broke into laughter. Andrew waited for the titters to die down before continuing.
“Some of you might be aware that Nights Pursuit actually cracked the New York Times top ten lists last year. Well, earlier today we agreed in principle to a developmental deal to bring the book to the silver screen.”
This time wild applause erupted. “Don’t know when or how soon or what Hollywood A-lister is going to play me.” Andrew struck his favorite pose – Superman – and the room burst out laughing again.
“This is just the preliminary conversations, might go nowhere. It’s just exciting to think about it.” Andrew raised his cup, once filled with beer, and now closing on empty. “And I couldn’t have done it without the love and support you guys have given me over the years. Cheers!”
Red and blue Solo cups were tapped together around the table as Andrew dropped down, then stood and put a box on the table. “Okay folks, the real reason you are here.” Andrew ripped the box open. “These were delivered today!” Andrew held up a fresh, hardback copy of his most recently published novel, Images between the Shadows. He was met with a series of ’ooh’s and ‘aahs’ as he imitated a game-show host. “Twenty advanced copies, all personally autographed to you guys. Once again, thanks for your support.”
The signed books were handed out, each with a personal thank you note. And more alcohol was consumed. Music from the high-end shelf system continues to pump pop and dance tunes onto the deck. The floor erupted into a disjointed dance party when ‘Brick House’ by the Commodores jumped from the speakers. The music was in competition with the crickets and bullfrogs who were having their own personal jam session. Janson Morris, a close friend of Andrew dropped down on the outdoor couch beside him. “Okay, since everyone is too polite to ask, I thought I would.”
Andrew leaned his way, grinning. “What did you do, wait until I’m all liquored up so I couldn’t say no?”
Janson laughed. “Awe, man, it’s not that way.”
“Bullshit,” Andrew said with more than a hint of a slur.
“Okay, it’s that way!” Janson leaned back and crossed his leg over his knee. He took his John Deer ball cap off, brushed his collar length sandy hair back and pulled at his flowered, Hawaiian print shirt. Janson had never spent a day of his life on the ocean, but he seemed to be a misplaced surfer everywhere he went. “It’s just that, you know, my girl has been pestering for an hour; she’s heard about you and your psychic thing. She doesn’t believe you.”
“And you want me to prove her wrong, so you can get in her pants?”
“Is that so bad? C’mon, man, help a brother out!” Janson turned toward Andrew, ball cap now clutched over his heart, eyes pleading.
Andrew laughed, shook his head, and ran his hands over his face. He sat up quickly. “All right, you know the drill. Organize the troops.”
While Andrew stepped inside to get prepared, Janson had several people lay personal objects, items that couldn’t be readily identifiable on the picnic table. Then the owners stepped off into the shadows to wait. When all was finally arranged, Janson shouted, “Showtime! Will the great Andrew please appear!”
Andrew leaped through the French doors that opened onto the deck, pushing them aside with a flourish. He tossed his make-shift cape – a checkered tablecloth – on the ground and walked over to the table. There were four items: An autographed Atlanta Braves hat, a silver barrette, a set of car keys with a Corvette tag, and a sealed envelope that was postmarked 2002.
“Ah, magnifico!” he said with a bad Italian accent as he circled the table. “With my hand-held, million-candle power spotlight, I will illuminate the owner of each object!” He powered the light, pointed it up, and the beam streaked skyward. “See how powerful it is; I have illuminated the moon!” His guests groaned and motioned for him to continue, while some tossed empty beer cans at him.
Andrew grabbed a greasy meat-fork off the grill and waved it around like a musical conductor. He pointed the fork at the car keys, then picked them up. “Ah, this is quite easy. Ben Senior,” he shouted, “you always wanted…” Andrew paused, whirled around, and ignited his spotlight. He aimed it at a small patch of woods two hundred feet away. “This car, it belonged to your dad, didn’t it?”
Ben stepped from behind the trees, his body practically glowing under the power of the light. He covered his eyes and walked back to the deck. “Damn, that’s wild, man. I never told you my dad had ’69 ’Vette. We were restoring it when he passed. How’d you know?”
Andrew tossed the keys to his friend. “Not quite sure. I twinged really hard, saw two trails. One vanished one led right to you. Figured it was your father or grandfather. Your dad must have loved the car.”
“You have no idea. It was his baby before he had babies, as he used to say.” Ben held the keys in both hands. “Did you see anything – anyone else?”
Smiling, Andrew shook his head. “Sorry, I only see the owner’s trail.”
The hat and barrette were simple. Touch the item, see the trail, hand item to the owner. But the envelope was different. It seemed to push him away, hold his hand at bay. Shit, I’m hammered. Andrew slammed his hand down on the envelope and dropped to the ground as if he’d been kneed in the groin. The twinge exploded out of him and accelerated away in a vertigo-inducing grayish-black streak. Through woods and over farmland he could sense the twinge’s course. It swerved through town, over rooftops before plunging into an abandoned millpond. There the trail evaporated as if sucked into a vacuum.
Andrew started to rise, then vomited on the ground. His face paled to skeletal white. He dropped to all fours and dry-heaved.
“Andrew!” Vanessa screamed and rushed to him. “What happened?”
He shook his head and used the picnic table for balance. “Who–who brought this and what in the hell is it?” Andrew groaned.
Janson stepped forward, his date trailing behind. She hid her face behind her hands as she stared at the ground. Her flip-flops made soft shuffling noises as she reluctantly followed.
“Andrew,” Janson said looking stricken. “I’m sorry man, we didn’t think anything like this would happen. I feel like shit.”
“You feel like shit?” Andrew rasped. “At least you’re not kneeling in your own puke. This feels like shit.” Vanessa took him by the arm and steadied him as he sat on the tabletop. He pulled his feet onto the long bench and rubbed his face.
“What in the hell did you do to him?” Vanessa snapped at Janson’s crying girlfriend. She tried to step between the pair when Andrew pulled her back by her shirt.
“Vanessa, it’s okay, they didn’t know, couldn’t have known. Not their fault.” He grabbed a beer out of the cooler on the table, ran the cold can over his face, popped the cap, and drained most of it without stopping. He grimaced, then burped. His face regained some of its color from earlier. “Sorry, had to settle the nerves.” He managed a weak grin.
Janson sat on the table beside Andrew, his date sitting below him, still refusing to make eye contact. “Andrew, what happened?”
Rolling his head on his shoulders, Andrew took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I really don’t know. The last few years my twinges have been coming on stronger, super intense. Sometimes they make me sick. I don’t know if this is a symptom or a coincidence, but my writing has also gotten darker.” He picked up the beer, leaned back, and finished it off. “The beer really helps settle me down.”
“So, what happens, or in this case, happened?” Janson asked, helping himself to a beer.
“I’ve explained my twinges to you, right?”
“Yeah, you said it’s like a painful déjà vu. Like if you step on a nail, then almost do it again, you get a phantom pain that runs through you at the anticipation of stepping on the nail.”
“That’s it exactly. After I get the twinge, I see an invisible,” Andrew held his hands up, “I know that’s an oxymoron; you can’t see something invisible! But I see, sense, feel a trail rushing from the object. If I focus on it, it vanishes. But if I let it tease me just a bit, I can follow it, just like those old 3-D posters. Stare at it just right and an image appears. But move just a bit and there’s nothing.
“And that’s how these started off originally. Really kinda cool, just love giving someone back a lost earring, wallet, etcetera. Most of the deep feelings I get from an object are warm, almost nostalgic.
“But in the last year, year and a half, it’s gotten really strong, from a twinge to a recoil.” Andrew grabbed another beer, ignoring the reproachful expression of Vanessa. “I’ve started wearing gloves, and never by-God go into an antique store.”
“So, I guess you didn’t get the warm-and-fuzzies?” Janson asked.
Andrew took a moment to answer as he stared across the tops of the trees that lined the river basin. Bats were diving through the air, turning incredible acrobatic maneuvers as they devoured night insects that trespassed on their territory. “No. This one was so fucking cold I thought I was going to stroke.”
“I’m so sorry, I really am.” Kaylie Cantor, Janson’s date said in a whispery voice. “I thought what you did was a put-on, a gag.” She glanced up and pushed hair out of her eyes. “But you were my last hope.” The woman pulled her dirty-blonde hair back behind her ears, regained some composure, and continued, “The envelope has a picture of me and my brother when we were little, and a letter from my mom telling us how she couldn’t wait to see us. Dad had visitation that summer. We’re the only thing mom said she ever cherished. She always had the picture with her.” Kaylie bit her lip as her emotions choked off her words. She swallowed several times. “Mom vanished almost fifteen years ago; we haven’t seen her since.”
“Andrew, man, I don’t know what to say. I told Kaylie your twinge thingy only worked for people that were alive. If I had known it would cause you to toss your cookies, I never would have put you through this.” Janson ran a hand through his shaggy blond hair and stared straight ahead. “But Kaylie and her brother have been searching for their mom for years and all they have are stacks of private eye bills and no luck.”
“You’re good,” Andrews said and patted his friend’s knee. “I’ve never had anything this intense happen before.” He rocked forward, wobbled to his feet, and stood on the bench. “Okay folks, that concludes tonight's festivities!” He tried to bow and almost took a header onto the deck.
Vanessa helped him down as his friends laughed and began to pick up the empty beer cans. Eventually, his friends exited through the house, all thanking him for the invitation. When Janson patted him on the shoulder and indicated he was leaving, Andrew pulled him back.
“Hang on a few minutes. We need to talk.”
Twenty minutes later the last of his guest’s taillights were turning onto the dark highway a quarter-mile down his long driveway. Kaylie and Janson waited in the cozy living room, the wide-screen TV on, but turned to the DirectTV programming channel. Vanessa closed the French doors to the deck and locked them. Andrew pulled up a chair to the edge of the couch and took Kaylie’s hand in his.
“I’m not one-hundred percent certain, but I think I can help you find your mom.”