The Frame

A thriller by Frederic Colier. The opening chapter.

October 10th

It may as well have been a dark and stormy night.[1] A gothic rain was on its way, and a violent wind swept across the front lawn. Except that the place was not England but Connecticut, and the roar emerging from inside the garage belonged not to a spiffy highwayman but a restless shadow coming through a backdoor. “Vickie! Vickie!” His two naked feet step into the light. Gasping, a broad-shouldered man rushes past bikes hanging on a wall, dimming the wheels sparkling under the spell of a row of bulbs. Is he scared or enraged? Hard to tell. A ball of clothes under one arm, he races up the driveway. Four bold but awkward strides. Is he chasing or running away? From the entrance gates he peers up and down the road, waits for a presence, a sign. Moving past the window-mobbed colonial house, he circles past the garages. Still no one. His eyes drift up towards the darkening woods where a stubborn wind rattles the canopy of trees. Oppressive heat. He swings around with the vigor of an innocent man trapped in a nightmare. But nature does not heed the human drama. The rustling of the leaves, some madly racing across the lawn, drowns out his calls. Filthy weather, even ravens there grow tight-billed. What was that shadow scurrying inside the house?

He barges through the front door, deaf to the loose tarp flapping against the hull of the dinghy parked outside the garage doors. He bulls up the hollow wooden stairs. A grayish cannonball with a stooped posture on a mission unbecoming to his age. Spinning across the landing, he bounces against a corner vase. A flower of debris watermarks the parquet. He elbows open a door of what is clearly a teenager’s bedroom. Hope quickly gives way to desperation. Posters of ‘80s European rock bands: Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Killing Joke, adorn the otherwise cluttered room. He tosses a scrum of clothes, Vickie’s, which sprawls on the bed upon crashing: a pair of dark jeans, a purple sweatshirt with G. Etherege High in large white letters.

“Vickie! Vickie?” Beyond the echo, his shouts fall flat. This time his voice shakes with untainted alarm. Maybe another room. Maybe. He bolts across the landing already dreading the outcome. Out of breath, he thumps at the door, which bounces back on the floor stopper. His elbow judders by reflex to avoid the backlash. He scrambles back downstairs. The fire stifles his gesture but rages inside.

He powers into the kitchen, not realizing that he is mumbling to himself. On the black marble countertop, their glasses almost touch, hers half full, caked with fingerprints and rimmed with purple lipstick; his empty; the bottle one quarter full. He takes a refill, aware the previous glass has dulled his gaze. Instead of drinking, he douses himself from the cold-water tap, as if cooling would bring clarity.

Can’t possibly be true. Can’t be.

A paper napkin on the counter flutters down into the sink. A paper napkin. That means . . . He spins around. The back door is ajar. She’s got to be . . . Within seconds, he is outside, hair dripping. Glimmering beads sprinkle his shoulders as light hits them. A broken-crowned king.

“Vickie? You there? Vickie!” His voice is vacuumed away by the whoosh of the trees. “For Christ’s sake come back!”

He reels at the edge of the woods, flails in desperation waiting for some presence, a shadow, a movement behind a tree, oblivious to the twigs bristling under his bare feet and the thick late-summer drizzle, harbingers of an upcoming storm. He calls her name again and again, but the gusts will not relent.

Back at his desk, he stares at the phone. Within reach a stack of business cards: Loch Kafka, Captain for Hire. A deep-chested grunt breaks into the room, and with an unbridled sweep, he cleans his desk, the crashed debris mingling with the litter his feet dragged in from the backyard. How to explain what just happened? There is more clarity to a shipwreck than …

His hands scavenge through drawers. He retrieves a passport. His. Loch Kafka, ten years younger, hair still dark, bright eyes already showing signs of exhaustion. He fishes for another: a blond woman in her mid-thirties, assertive green eyes: Amanda’s. Nothing else. He swings open the double doors of the closet, shuffles through a pile of boxes, knocking aside what is in his way. Nothing and nothing. His eyes glaze over with dread, with fear. His jaw throbs in erratic agreement. He slumps back down, his fingers resting on the phone receiver, preyed to an uncontrollable spasm. His glances move back to the window where the skeletons of trees have clustered. They point at him, gossiping already, warning him they do not accept unwelcome visitors. What just happened? They know. No more reliable witnesses than trees across time. They have seen everything, know truths, past seasons and centuries. They remember the creatures and people who ventured among them. They remember their deeds.

A minute later he is in the basement slipping on rubber boots and, with a heavy gait, throws himself into the gothic woods, bloated with the unleashed storm, the swirling wind, and the ogling trees sheltering pontificating ravens. Whipping his arms to open a path, he looks like an albatross tripping on its clumsy wings. A departure into an unwanted territory? Or the continuation of a long-festering nightmare playing catchup?

[1] This line is a reference to the novel Paul Clifford (1830) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.