Excerpt

LET THE SHADOWS FALL BEHIND YOU

 By

 Kathy-Diane Leveille

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

 No … don’t leave me!

Brannagh Maloney awoke in darkness. “Nikki?” she mumbled. Something pinched her eyelids shut. Brannagh popped two fingers into her mouth before laying them across each eye. She could feel the ice crystals sealing her upper and lower lashes dissolving.

Brannagh opened her eyes. The down sleeping bag had slid off the mattress and onto the floor.

Don’t go.

She rarely remembered dreams. If a rare echo carried over to waking day, she ignored it.

Brannagh glanced at Nikki’s dark, curly head on the pillow next to hers. He looked deceptively vulnerable with his six-foot-frame curled inward. His right arm, browned by the hot summer sun, was flung across his forehead.

Brannagh yanked the cover upwards. She tucked one corner around his shoulder, and then sat up, pulling her knees into her chest.

In the muddy half-light seeping beneath the window curtain, Brannagh detected whiskers of hoarfrost on the timbered walls where the joints met below the red-shingled roof. Autumn was a mere blip in the changing of the seasons in northern Ontario.

Nikki was leaving today. Brannagh looked forward to a week of solitude and time to regain her perspective. She would sketch the surrounding hills now that the waves of scarlet and plum had disappeared, leaving behind skeletal branches; a bleak blend of brown and grey.

Alex Turner, Nikolai Mirsky’s assistant, had found the cabin after they had returned from their first expedition into Lake of the Woods to survey birds in the boreal forest. Their offices, housed in a pair of abandoned MNR trailers ten kilometres west of Ignace, didn’t offer living quarters. Most of the staff stayed at Bob’s Motel. Nikki had insisted he needed a retreat from the rest of the crew. What he hadn’t revealed initially, even to Brannagh, was that he wanted her to share the retreat with him.

The cabin was at the end of a rumpled dirt road, perched on a cliff overlooking Davey Lake. It was rodent-infested and every spare inch that wasn’t already littered with rusting coffee cans or tobacco tins had been filled with animal droppings.

“It’s haunted,” Alex had claimed one night, as they sat around a fire on a curve of shale that overlooked the water.

“What is?” Brannagh had been lying on her back trying to locate Ursa Major.

“This place.”

According to Alex, who had grown up in Lake of the Woods, the cabin had been built at the turn of the century by a prospector for his mail-order bride. Child bride, the town folk called her. Thirteen years old. Ten months after she arrived from a small town in Minnesota, the prospector disappeared. She claimed he’d rowed out to the island to fish, that she’d found the lunch she’d prepared for him, yellow-jackets crawling over the jam cake, still wrapped in a handkerchief.

“Let’s row out there.” Nikki had jumped to his feet. “Fry a catch of northern pike.”

Brannagh had peered intently into the fire, a shiver snaking her spine.

“Don’t tell me you believe in ghosts?” Nikki paused at the edge of the cliff.

“People who disappear aren’t ghosts,” Brannagh answered softly.

“What are they then?”

But she had already turned away.

There was only one piece of furniture in the room where Brannagh and Nikki slept; an old-fashioned bureau with a glass bowl and water jug. The floor was covered with stacks of paper, file folders and texts; all the research that they, and the team of university students, had carried out over the past year. Nikki was a wilderness preservationist. He organized the first count of birds in the boreal forest, which would set a baseline for the ecosystem before the building of dams and hydro plants (which big business and government insisted would not change the environment). The ten-year-study would help measure the effect of sulphur dioxide on two million acres of lakes and rivers.

Nikki had fought long and hard to bring it together. Brannagh, by a pure stroke of luck (and white lies), had been hired as cataloguer. When she had left Toronto and headed north last spring she had anticipated starting a whole new career, one that would change her life. Her life had changed, all right.

Brannagh leaned toward Nikki on one elbow until her face was inches from his. The mask worn by the man who fought battles all day was gone. There was something that rose to the surface in sleep that she only caught fleeting glimpses of when he was awake. When Nikki pondered an ornithological puzzle, his dark eyes would flash. It was this sense of child-like wonder experienced on the brink of the spectacular that left Brannagh weak. It was the enticement that beckoned and would not let her go. Still, she didn’t know what possessed her to let down her guard and move into the cabin with him. The exhaustion at the expedition’s close had skewed her better judgement. Luckily, their work would wrap soon, and they would go their separate ways.

Brannagh fell back onto her pillow. On mornings like this, when she was unable to drift back to sleep, Brannagh sensed the presence of the child bride. After she and Nikki had moved in and scrubbed the cabin from top to bottom, she would awaken in the half-light of dawn to a vague distant swishing crackle. She would find clumps of faded newsprint on the floor. Old-fashioned insulation, Nikki had explained, tumbling out from between timbers. Ghosts, Alex had insisted with a wicked grin. Brannagh saved every one.

Advertisements: Dan Schinsky’s Hair Dye.

Random pages from a pulp novel: The Five Cent Wide Awake Library.

The Bible: Joseph’s brothers saw him coming from far away. Let’s kill him and throw his body into one of the wells and tell our father that a wild animal killed him. Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams.

On days like today Brannagh sensed the child bride pacing the floor when the wind rose, or sighing when a log tumbled into the fire.

Brannagh added messages of her own to the cracks between the timbers. She pulled articles from Nikki’s files: Canada Accepts Nuclear Warheads. Man Walks on The Moon. “I Have a Dream” says Martin Luther King.

This is who I am, she silently informed the chinks between the timbers. It’s 1970. This is my world. Women don’t need men to survive. I love being on my own. And then, just in case she was giving the impression that she was too serious, Brannagh scribbled: Bob Dylan writes Blowing in the Wind.

Brannagh pictured the child bride reading to the hermit every night from pulp novels, the bible. Did the grizzled old man grow dreamy-eyed and wrap his arm around her, or did he grumble over time better spent carving up a moose carcass?

Brannagh rose to her knees and parted the curtain on the window. Her warm breath fogged the pane, but she could see bits of feathery white drifting downward; the first snowflakes of the season. The rugged earth, pungent with the decay of rotting leaves, solid under her feet just yesterday, had disappeared.

Brannagh rolled off the mattress and fished around for the bush socks she had abandoned during the night. By 8:30 she was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor waiting for water to boil on the camp stove. When it did she tossed in a scoop of aromatic coffee grounds, followed by a handful of crushed eggshells.

Nikki was not a morning person, and lately it had been harder and harder to get him out of bed. Something seemed off, but then, how well did Brannagh know him? By the time Nikki emptied a dresser drawer into a rucksack and pulled a wool sweater over his head, it was 9:30.

“I’m late.” He lumbered into the kitchen and pulled Brannagh close to him. He smelt of wood smoke and the flowery motel soaps they pilfered whenever they went into town for a night of beer and burgers at the Evergreen Motel.

“How late?” Brannagh opened her bathrobe and pressed against him. His breath was warm on her forehead.

“The vamp in the woollen underwear.” He smiled.

She picked up the suitcase by the door and followed him outside, jolted awake by the morning air. The lake lay still and sullen beneath the falling snow.

Nikki tossed the rucksack into the front of the truck and leaned on the door. (Later Brannagh would recall a distant, haunted look in his dark eyes, the purple shadows beneath them.)

Brannagh wrapped her arms around her chest, shivering, and hopped from one foot to the other. “I’m sure it will be fascinating, your conference on … whatever.”

“Trends towards shorter turnover cycles in forestry, and their effect on boreal birds’ seasonal movements between biomes in the course of annual migration.”

“How terribly exciting. Whenever I tell people I’m a Natural Science Illustrator, they think I survey hydro lines in Labrador.”

Nikki reached out and grabbed her hand. He kissed it, and then slid it beneath the neck of his sweater. “Brannagh …”

“Yes?”

“I …”

“What is it?”

And then he shrugged. “Don’t forget to check the mail.”

Brannagh gazed into his dark eyes. She saw crag and burbling streams and tamarack. They had spent so much time in the bush that she was unable to define him, he could not come into focus, without it. Suddenly, inexplicably she did not want him to leave her. The snow made a faint shush, shush sound as it fell to the ground. Brannagh tilted back her head. The flakes were icy on her cheeks.

“Coffee for the road?”

He shook his head. “I put new batteries in the torch.”

Brannagh experienced a pang. Just when she least expected it, the big oaf did something sweet.

“Take it to bed with you if …” He squeezed her arm gently before turning away.

Brannagh had an illogical fear of the dark and could not sleep without a light, or Nikki’s foot hooked around her shin, and his masculine sea-scent interlacing her dreams.

“Nikki.”

“What?” Nikki kept walking.

She swallowed. “Don’t forget to eat.”

Brannagh stood on the porch and watched the truck tires slide along the rutted road leading to the Trans-Canada highway.

Three days later, when Brannagh called the hotel in Winnipeg where the conference was being held, the desk clerk told her that Nikolai Mirsky was not listed on the hotel registration.

The tips of her fingers, clutching the phone, tingled.

Perhaps, the desk clerk’s voice droned on, she would like to inquire elsewhere?

Brannagh hung up the phone and went outside to stand on the road. She stared down at the end, willing a dark figure to appear; first as a movement within the tall evergreens, then taking shape on its own. She told herself that the wetness on her cheeks was snowflakes. By the time darkness fell, Brannagh had abandoned the lookout. She already understood that, like the earth covered by the first snow of the season, Nikki had vanished from her life.

 

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16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cindy Hammond
    Nov 09, 2008 @ 18:44:40

    I really enjoyed this excerpt and cannot wait to read the book!!

    Reply

    • kathydiane
      Dec 11, 2008 @ 14:24:28

      Thanks Cindy. My editor and I just finished polishing it last month and I’m so pleased with the final draft. It’s all very exciting. Happy Holidays!

      Reply

  2. emma may weisseneder
    Jan 03, 2009 @ 17:13:14

    Absolutely riveting! I want to know what happens. What genre please, do you put this in? Looking forward to the Launch. Best Wishes, Emma May

    Reply

    • kathydiane
      Jan 05, 2009 @ 13:20:05

      Hi Emma,

      I’m glad you like this story. It’s one of my favorites. It is from the short story collection “Roads Unravelling” published by Sumach Press in Toronto. They slotted the collection as ‘literary,’ but I’ve always struggled to nail down exactly what that word means. I’ve concluded that literary usually doesn’t follow the strict conventions outlined by editors for genre writing (and by fans who read it and have concrete expectations). The novel “Let the Shadows Fall Behind You” is classified as a literary suspense novel; being that it bends the rules of the traditional suspense genre to create an individual style. All of the boundaries are blurred these days, though, and trying to classify remains an ongoing debate. Ian Rankin was one of the first recent suspense/crime writers to be labelled ‘literary’ and many more have followed suit. Did I answer your question or just confuse you more?? Great to hear from you.

      Best
      Kathy-Diane

      Reply

  3. Karen Harrington
    Apr 02, 2009 @ 02:12:29

    Kathy,

    Congrats on your book release! I am truly excited for you and especially happy to be rubbing shoulders with such a talent.

    Cheers,

    Karen

    Reply

  4. Marjorie
    Oct 24, 2009 @ 15:22:58

    I have really enjoyed reading the excerpt, it just wants you to come for
    me. Thanks for the chance to read it.

    Reply

  5. Dee Brown
    Jun 14, 2010 @ 03:48:22

    Loved the excerpt. I don’t know when it comes out but i’ll be checking for it at the site or store. I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

    Reply

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