THURSDAY: Hidden Gems

BY DEBORAH LEAN

This is a first chapter excerpt from Deborah’s latest mystery novel, available now for the Kindle. Copyright is held by the author.

EDIE APPROACHED the house with a feeling of trepidation. The small, red brick bungalow looked tired and neglected. The patchy green lawn needed to be cut, and the gardens, which should have been full of May flowers, still contained all the withered and dead remnants of last season’s bloom. Obviously the occupant had not done any fall cleanup and this year’s perennials were coming in wild and woody. She had been a frequent visitor to this house, indeed it had been like a second home to her, as her best friend had lived there for more than 30 years. But not anymore.

Ever since Carrie had suffered the debilitating stroke that first confined her to a wheelchair, and then brought about her admission to the assisted living centre, the house had lost its feeling of welcome. Welcome, that was a laugh, she thought. Carrie’s son had practically barred the doors and windows to discourage any visitors.

Never what she would call a ‘normal’ boy, Andrew, now in his early 30s, had never really grown up, and would still be living at home with his mother if her illness had not changed their circumstances. Now, with Carrie out of the house, Andrew was on his own for the first time in his life, and if the state of the house was any indication, he wasn’t coping very well. In the 18 months since Carrie’s admission to the care facility, Andrew had become more and more isolated, rarely venturing out and reluctant to let anyone in.

Edie walked up the driveway, picking up the free newspapers, wrapped in their plastic sleeves, where they lay scattered across the asphalt. Carrie had called that morning, concerned because she hadn’t heard from Andrew for a few days, and that was unlike him.  Her son may have shut out the rest of the world, but he was still attentive to his mother, calling her regularly, and visiting at least once a week.

It was sad, that mother and son were so co-dependent that neither had been able to move on from a family tragedy. It was the one bone of contention, between the lifelong friends, that Carrie had not pushed Andrew to become independent, had not sought help to get them both past the death of the husband and father.

As she approached the veranda, Edie was surprised to see the wooden door open behind the glass window of the storm door. In spite of the welcome spring weather, Andrew would never have left the door open; his anxiety was such that the drapes were always closed and the door was always locked.

She pushed the doorbell and heard the chimes sound through the house with an eerie emptiness. Wasn’t she being the fanciful one, she thought. Just because Andrew made her a little uneasy, there was no reason to think the worst. She pushed the bell a second time, waited, then knocked on the door for more emphasis.

Glancing around, Edie could see Andrew’s bike. It was leaning against the garage wall where he always left it under the shelter of the porch roof, the lock on the back wheel in its place. There was nothing obviously out of the ordinary, well, except for the papers on the drive, and the open door. Throwing the papers down, she tried the handle on the screen door, surprised to find it unlocked as the door fell open.

Reluctantly, she entered the house, and walked in past the boxes and piles that made a narrow hallway even narrower. “Andrew?” she called out. “It’s Edie Prescott. Are you here?”

The air was stale and musty smelling, the cause apparent when she entered the living room.  All she could see were piles; piles teetered on top of piles, on all the furniture, anywhere and everywhere she looked; there were stacks of books, magazines and newspapers. It was unbelievable, she thought, turning in a circle to stare open mouthed at the transformation of her friend’s once cozy living room. What was wrong with him? Where did he get all this stuff? The room was completely taken over except for a small space in one corner. Carrie’s comfy chair, the small table and lamp, and the television only a few feet away were all covered with piles of books stacked on top, underneath and beside. Without thinking, she picked up a magazine scattered on the floor by the chair and shook her head when she noted the date was two years in the past. Poor Carrie and poor Andrew.

Edie always thought Carrie had indulged the boy, made excuses for him when he dropped out of school, when he couldn’t hold down a job. And now he had barricaded himself in the house, and she did mean barricaded, she thought.

She thought about the man, her friend’s son, and called out again, her heart pounded, her hands damp, worried when she heard no response. Stepping over books that spilled onto the floor, Edie made her way to the kitchen at the back of the house. Every horizontal surface was covered in books or boxes of books, with only one small space at the head of the table open, obviously the spot where Andrew sat for his meals.

Edie turned and made her way back through the maze of written material, thinking if a spark was ever to land in this place the whole house would go up like a tinder box. Where was Andrew?

As she made her way down the bedroom hall, Edie let loose with a murmured string of curses when a number of hard cover books fell from the stacks lining the hallway, striking her on the shoulder and foot. How did he live like this? How long had it taken him to accumulate it all? Well, that was obvious, she thought, at least 18 months, the 18 months since his mom had moved out, though she knew from Carrie his frantic collecting had been going on for years.

Edie turned to the room she knew had been Andrew’s since he was a boy and called out: “Andrew?”

Standing in the doorway, she saw him sitting in the chair in front of his computer screen, slumped over his desk. Thinking he had fallen asleep playing one of his computer games, Edie entered the room, reached out to shake his shoulder and wake him up.

“Andrew, you need to learn to turn it off and go to bed. Sleeping like that is hell on your back and neck.”

She gave him a little shove, and screamed when he fell sideways off the chair, to lay unmoving on the floor.

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