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Authors: Jan Harman

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Brush of Shade

BOOK: Brush of Shade
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Brush of Shade

The Whisperer’s Chronicles

By

Jan Harman

Copyright © Janet
Harman

 

This book is a work of fiction.
The events described are imaginary. Any resemblance to actual events or
persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental. Certain settings may be
referred to by their real names. Details of these settings as well as any
incidents portrayed as taking place within these settings are purely the
product of the author’s imagination. All rights reserved, including the right
to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in whole or in part in any form.

 

To my wonderful husband, Harry
and our three fantastic children, this book wouldn’t be possible were it not
for your willingness to live through chaos while I was engrossed by characters
and plot. Sorry about
all the
make it yourself
dinners. To my daughters who read countless drafts, thank you for your
critiques.
All my love.

Chapter
1

 

Ordinarily
people don’t give much credence to those flashes of movement that catch briefly
in the corner of their eyes. Common sense provides reasons that allow them to
go about their days bypassing the psych ward, which is where I feared I was
headed. The fact that I had legitimate cause for concern did nothing to sooth
my anxiety. Once in the hospital parking lot after my last round of surgeries,
yesterday during lunch at the outdoor café, and three times so far this week in
our hotel lobby, I’d been positive someone had been watching me. When I’d
turned to look more fully into the shadows, I’d seen something . . . nothing,
definable out of place. It was just delayed stress or survivor’s guilt. I
needed to work through my grief, one too many counselors had kindly told me.

It’s just
ordinary goose bumps.

Keep walking.
Eyes straight ahead.

Don’t have
one of those days.

Then, like
now, the only thing apparently not right was me.

The muffled
clumping of my crutch against carpet disguised the unevenness of my gait. I
exchanged a polite farewell and good luck with the doctor’s receptionist and
turned the corner to the elevators. My posture slumped, and I rested on the
padded top of my crutch. For once the elevator whooshed open immediately. In my
mind, I sailed confidently inside. In reality, my left knee caught and refused
to bend properly. I lurched forward, executing a slow version of the
three-legged race. I punched the button for the lobby and leaned against the
back wall, grateful to have the elevator to myself. To keep distracted from the
tight, airless space, I reviewed the doctor’s final report detailing my knee’s
limited range of movement and the looming possibility of yet another surgery.

 “
Umph
,”someone grunted as they tried to slip on at the last
second. The doors rumbled and bounced back. 

My head snapped up.
I slid into the corner, hunching my shoulders and trembling. The sensation of
being watched persisted, prickling the hair on the back of my neck. I stared
hard at the corner opposite the control panel. Only the metal handrail broke
the line of simulated wood paneling. I strained to hear over my pounding heart,
the hum of the motor, and the soft guitar music coming through the speakers.
Was that breathing? Did I smell pine? That would be cleaning solution. Get a
grip. I rubbed my tingling arms. This was no place to have an episode.

Against all
rational observation to the contrary, I refused to look again at the corner to
the left of the doors. As the floors ticked past, I counted down to my escape
from insanity. By the time the elevator opened to the lobby revealing my aunt
waiting to drive me home, my hand was stuffed deep into my purse, searching for
my medication.

 
Act
normal. Be normal. Apparently, normal was on holiday. I was stuck with faking
it.

“Olivia, you
look drained,” my Aunt Claire said, giving me
a
once-over that stopped when her gaze reached my purse. Her lips pressed flat
and her freshly manicured nails tapped the smooth leather of the portfolio
tucked beneath her arm. “Is the pill necessary?”

I bit back what
I really wanted to say. Instead, in my quest for normal and to avoid another
lengthy discussion, I shook my head. “No, I was looking for gum. I like your
haircut.”

She sighed
heavily and with a forced smile ran her fingers through her light brown hair
that curled about her neck “I had a productive hour. Everything is all set for
us to head out tomorrow. Miles with nothing to do but relax and enjoy the fall
foliage will be good for the both of us. The valley will put that sparkle back
into your eyes. Until then, let me take care of all the details.”

Not that I had a
choice. Throughout the gut-wrenching months of misery and pain since my
parents’ deaths last May at the end of my junior year, she’d contradicted every
image I had of her as the go-where-life-takes-me artist. A force not to be tangled
with, she’d set out to get into the face of every medical practitioner who’d
dared doubt that I would ever regain the use of my left leg. Awed by her and
overwhelmed by debilitating grief, I too had fallen in line with her plans. Now
that bits of the old Olivia were resurfacing, I wanted to argue against
spending more than a few minutes at a time in a car. I suspected one of those
details involved refilling my meds.

Unfortunately
for my peace of mind, the feeling of being observed persisted, following on my
heels as I exited the building. It scratched the back of my neck, demanding to
be noticed like an irritating mosquito bite. Each time we strolled passed a
building with a shiny
exterior,
I squinted in the
bright afternoon light in an effort to check the reflection. Even with the
lunch hour crowds clogging the sidewalk and getting in the way, it was clear no
one was following us to our car. The idea was ludicrous. Pull it together. Now
would be a good time to concentrate on a happy place and try the deep, calming
breaths my psychologist had recommended. Too bad I couldn’t think of a place
and I was puffing too hard from being out of shape.

Oh, crap! I spun
around. While I’d been busy watching the reflections, the current had swallowed
my aunt. Dots danced in front of my eyes from staring at metal, making it hard
to see. I wet my lips, breathing quite heavily now. Think back. On the way here
this morning, she’d mentioned something about stopping at a store after my
appointment. I hadn’t paid attention. I’d thought she was just rambling again
because she knew I found all the traffic upsetting. I decided against
backtracking. Either I’d find her up ahead waiting at the entrance to a store
or we’d meet up at the car. I was not a lost toddler. I’d navigated my way
around cities all over the world. I could get myself to the parking garage.

The congestion
bottlenecked next to a newspaper stand, hindering my attempts to locate Aunt
Claire’s taupe-colored jacket amongst a sea of fall outwear and suits. A panhandler
stuffed a baseball cap containing two nickels and a dollar bill under my nose.
In French, I told him his cap stunk from vomit. I escaped by squeezing between
the magazine rack and a tourist asking for directions to the National Mall. A
sudden surge of the herd carried me along. In my role as the wounded animal on
the urban plateau, my slow, jerky movements broadcasted my weakness. The
predators—those power walking, soon to be ruling the world executives—jostled
and outright shoved me out of their way. I swiped my sweaty palms on my jeans
while trying to remember why I’d ever found the crowds and the noise of the
city exciting. I considered waving down a taxi. That would defeat the purpose
of parking so far away. Apparently, I hadn’t been pushing myself enough.
According to my physical therapist, I needed to build up my endurance.

My leg started
to shake. I envisioned falling and scavengers rifling through my belongings.
“Please, someone let me pass,” I said in a voice that not even I could hear
above the roar of a motorcycle driving down the street.

A man wearing a
plain, gray sweatshirt with its hood pulled up crowded close to me, pressing
against my right side. Pedestrians hemmed me in, making it impossible to put
distance between us. My right arm tingled and itched. I must’ve scratched
myself when I clipped the planter in the lobby of the doctor’s office. I wanted
to stop and check, but I was afraid of being run down. Long strides pulled the
man ahead and into the middle of a trio of businessmen. He stooped to converse
with the gentleman on the far right before moving on.

The businessman
slowed and turned to look back at me. An outstretched hand waved me forward.
“Come this way. There’s more room along the side.”

The businessman
waved the crowd back until I squeezed around the light post and out of the
crushing stampede. I thanked him and chalked his actions up to a random act of
kindness. I searched the crowd for the sweatshirt man to thank him, too. But he
was gone as was my strange reaction. It must be the new meds.

At a slower
pace, I maneuvered the less crowded strip of pavement between the street and
the congested walk. With an eye out for the parking garage, I was able to
concentrate on the safe placement of my crutch. The frantic beat of my pulse
slowed. Despite the press of people, I set about enjoying my last minutes in
Washington, D.C., one of my favorite cities. I considered persuading my aunt to
stop for a quick bite at a bistro. The suggestion alone would gain me much
needed coping points in her eyes and maybe less scrutiny. I saw no reason to
burden her with my recent episodes of weirdness. She’d be on the phone to my
shrink. That led to thoughts that gave me the shakes.

I glimpsed the
neon, green sign for the parking garage half a block up on the other side of
the street. The Do Not Walk sign blinked; the crowd began to slow. Out of
nowhere, a bike messenger cut across the corner to sneak ahead of the traffic
jam. Angry pedestrians shouted and jumped to the side. My uncooperative leg
refused to be hurried. I gasped when it became apparent that he had no
intention of slowing down.

Out of nowhere,
a stiff gust of wind swooped down the street, driving a spray of newspapers
into the crowd. People shrieked and batted their hands. Eddies swirled the
papers around the bicyclist, pelting his face and body. The bike wobbled and
veered off course, clipping a street sign. The messenger flew over the
handlebars, face planting ironically into a stack of newspapers. People moving
faster than me got to him first. The gray sweatshirt guy was back, helping the
bike messenger to his feet. I was gawking and rubbing the goose bumps on my
arms when my aunt joined me.

She looked me up
and down, her expression put out, but there was worry in her eyes, too. “
Liv
, are you alright? Don’t scare me like that!” The light
changed to green; the crowd surged. She grabbed my elbow and grumbled,
“Reckless behavior.”

I was pretty
sure she hadn’t meant the messenger. I sighed.

Once inside the
parking garage, the sensation of watchfulness returned. It lasted until my
aunt’s blue Focus pulled into traffic. By then the thought of eating twisted
the knot in my stomach all the tighter. I closed my eyes, feigning sleep to
avoid her questions. My questions, the ones circling my grasp on reality,
refused to be silenced.

***

After four
unhurried days on the road as tourist enjoying the fair weather of the last
week of September, we’d finally commenced on the last leg of our journey. The
mile markers in Colorado seemed to come quicker and our stops shorter.
Conversation fizzled. Aunt Claire sat forward in her seat intent upon the road,
while I tried to lose myself in my music.

On a two-lane
state route that we had to ourselves, our Focus dropped down out of the pass
through a forest of gold leafed aspens interspersed with ponderosa pine. A
string of craggy peaks, majestic and scarred, rose up to scrape against the
azure sky like sentinels standing watch over this remote community. As the car
descended through a series of switch-back turns, my gaze traced the highway on
the valley floor as it followed the curves of the land towards the town. Broad
streets formed a tidy grid pattern, offering limited highway access. In
contrast to the tightly packed subdivisions so common in metropolitan areas,
wide plots of land divided neighbors as though people out here valued their
space and their privacy.

Excitement shone
in my aunt’s gaze as she pointed out places of interest. “Down this drive my
best friend Cali used to throw the wildest . . . never mind. And this dirt road
will take you into the backcountry to this pretty camping spot with the best
hiking trails and a mountain lake with a rope swing. Talk about a dunking that
will take your breath away.” She glanced at my leg.
“Something
to look forward to for next summer.
Before we get too low we might be
able to see . . . yes,” she pointed, “If you look to the left of the steeple,
you’ll see a road winding up into the mountains. That’ll take us out to the
Pepperdine manor. It’s a stately old Victorian with a wide, wraparound porch.
The caretaker says
its
solid, but could do with some
modernizing. You’re going to love it here. The crisp mountain air, the
unhurried pace of life, and the healing quality of the valley will cleanse away
the sadness in your soul.”

 For my
part, I leaned forward searching the streets for familiar names of stores and
places to eat, the basics of civilization. We drove past a sign advertising the
stores downtown. My head swiveled. I read the sign again.
Pepperdine’s
Hand Made Soaps and Candles.
I had relatives?

I settled back
into my seat only half listening to my aunt’s ramblings as we passed the
welcome sign for Spring Valley and an empty, olive-green jeep. Those odd
incidents of being watched that lay discarded with the rest of my old life in a
hollow house back in Washington, D.C. were reenacted exponentially. The
hardware store, the first structure of any significance, gave me goose bumps.
Less than a minute later, the mini-golf raised the hairs on the back of my
neck. My skin crawled, and I flashed on a memory of a hand covering my face
followed by a burning pain that never cooled. By the time we pulled into the
gas station, my chest felt tight and I was on the verge of a full-blown panic
attack.

While Aunt
Claire chatted with a man filling his SUV, I headed next door to the small
grocery store for a gallon of milk, a few odds and ends, and a package of
instant sanity. The parking lot was surprisingly crowded for six o’clock on a
Friday evening. I nodded hello to a father and his two young sons just getting
out of their vehicle.

BOOK: Brush of Shade
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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