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Chasing Fireflies: A Novel of Discovery

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9781595543257: Chasing Fireflies: A Novel of Discovery
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Mountain Between Us comes a powerful story about fishing, baseball, home cooking, and other matters of life and death . . .

“Martin understands the power of story and he uses it to alter the souls and lives of both his characters and his readers . . .” —Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author

They have one summer to find what was lost long ago.

“Never settle for less than the truth,” she told him.

On a stifling summer day, an old Chevy Impala ignored the warning signals and was annihilated by the oncoming train. What no one realized until much later was that the driver had paused just before entering the tracks and kicked a small boy out of the car. A small boy with broken glasses who is clutching a notebook with all his might . . . but who never speaks.

Chase Walker was one of the lucky ones. He was in foster care as a child, but he finally ended up with a family who loved him and cared for him. Now, as a journalist for the local paper, he’s moved on and put the past behind him.

But when he’s assigned the story of this young boy, painful, haunting questions about his own childhood begin to rise to the surface.

And as Chase Walker discovers, learning the truth about who you are can be as elusive—and as magical—as chasing fireflies on a summer night.

“[C]olorful, memorable characters; Southern regional flavor that’s drop-dead accurate; and lyrical, intelligent writing make Chasing Fireflies an exceptionally good read.” —Aspiring Retail

“If I could use only one word to describe Chasing Fireflies it would have to be ‘WOW!’ From the very beginning of the book I was drawn into the story and could not put it down.” —epinions.com

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About the Author:

Charles Martin is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of thirteen novels. He and his wife, Christy, live in Jacksonville, Florida. Learn more about him at CharlesMartinBooks.com; Facebook: Author.Charles.Martin; Twitter: @storiedcareer.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

I stepped out into the sunlight humming a Pat Green tune, slipped on my sunglasses, and stared out over the courthouse steps. After three days of incarceration, not much had changed. Brunswick, Georgia, was like that. Discarded bubblegum, flat as half-dollars, dotted the steps like splattered ink. Lazy, blimpish pigeons strutted the sidewalk begging for bread scraps or the sprinkles off somebody's double-shot mocha latte. In the alley across the street, an entire herd of stray cats crept toward the wharf just four blocks down. The sound of seagulls told them the shrimp boats had returned. And on the steps next to me, two officers lifted a tattooed man, whose feet and hands were shackled and cuffed, up the steps and, undoubtedly, into Judge Thaxton's courtroom. Based on the mixture of saliva and epithets coming out of his mouth, he wasn't too crazy about going. No worries. Given my experience with Her Honor, his stay in her courtroom wouldn't be long.

His next short-term home would be a holding cell downstairs. These were cold, dark, windowless, and little more than petri dishes for mold and fungi. I know this because I've been in them on more than one occasion. The first time I stayed here as a guest, I scratched Chase was here into the concrete block wall. This time I followed it up with Twice. Makes me laugh to think about it. Sort of following in Unc's footsteps.

Two blocks down, rising above the rest of town like the Ferris wheel at a county fair, stood the bell tower above the Zuta Bank and Trust. Most churches-turned-banks have that. At the turn of the century, its Russian Orthodox congregation had dwindled down to nothing, leaving the priest to roam the basement like the Phantom in his catacomb.

And while the Silver Meteor was the most famous rail ever to run these woods, she couldn't hold a candle to the one that ran underground.

When the first Russian immigrants appeared in the late 1800s, they built on an existing footprint. A hundred years earlier, the local inhabitants had built their own meetinghouse. The building served several purposes: town hall, church, and shelter. Unique to the structure was a basement. Because much of South Georgia rests so close to the water table, they dug the basement into a hill, then lined the walls and floors with several feet of coquina. This did not mean it stayed dry, but it was dry enough. Through two trapdoors and one hidden stairwell, the townsfolk survived multiple Indian attacks and two Spanish burnings of the building above. Few today know about the basement. Maybe just the four of us. Sure, folks know it was there at one time, but most think it was filled in when the ZB&T was built. Scratchings on the walls show the names of slaves who knelt in the dark, listened, and prayed while dogs sniffed above.

Eventually the Phantom vacated as well, leaving the building empty for nearly a decade. Hating to see it go to waste and needing a place from which to loan money, a local businessman bought the building, ripped out half the pews, one confessional, and most of the altar, and installed counters and a vault. Local sentiment swayed in his favor. The depression was still fresh on people's minds, and in that mind-set you couldn't let a perfectly good building go to waste. If you built the church, don't take it personally. Just because folks around here don't like your brand of God doesn't mean they don't like your brand of architecture. Count your blessings. Most in Glynn County echoed this sentiment. Some of the locals proudly traced their roots to the Founding Fathers--the English prisoners sent from England to inhabit the colony back before the Revolution. Such sentiment was not unique; folks in Australia did the same. In the sticks of Brunswick, Georgia, rebellion was as hardwired into the DNA of the residents as was the love of Georgia Bulldog football.

While South Georgia found itself squarely embedded in the Bible Belt, and most churches were filled on Sundays, only Saturdays were sacred. Saturday afternoons from September to December, folks huddled around the altar of an AM station and worshipped the red and black of the Bulldogs. And while local pastors were much admired and respected, none carried the weight of the radio voice of the Bulldogs, Larry Munson. If Larry said anything at all, it was gospel. Throughout the decades, much has been written about Notre Dame and Touchdown Jesus, The Crimson Tide and Bear Bryant, and Penn State and Paterno, but from the salt marsh to the mountains, it was a certifiable fact that God himself was a Georgia Bulldog. How else did Larry Munson break his chair?

November 8, 1980. A minute to go in the fourth quarter. The Gators led the Bulldogs by a point. The Bulldogs had the ball, but ninety-three yards stood between them, the goal line, and their shot at the national title. On the second play of the game, Herschel Walker had bounced off a tackle and scorched seventy-two yards for six points and the beginnings of immortality. Now he stood on the field, having rushed for more than two hundred yards, either a target or a decoy. Buck Belue of Valdosta, Georgia, took the snap, pump faked--causing Florida Gator Tony Lilly to stumble--and dumped the ball down the left sideline to Lindsey Scott, who high-stepped ninety-three yards and joined Herschel atop Mt. Olympus. Amidst the mayhem in the press box, Larry Munson would break his folding chair, solidifying his place alongside the commentating gods and inside the heart of every man, woman, and child in the state of Georgia. Sports Illustrated later called it the "Play of the Decade," and many sportswriters agreed that Herschel Walker was the greatest athlete ever to play college football.

Folks in Georgia need no further argument. The State rests.

My office at the Brunswick Daily sat across the street, looking down on me. I could see the rolling slide show of my screen saver shining through my third-story window. My perch. As a reporter assigned to the court beat, I kept my finger on the court's pulse by watching these steps. The sign above my head read Glynn County Jail, but I didn't turn and look at it. Didn't need to.

After three days in jail, I was pretty sure that my editor had bitten his nails to the quick and was up there eyeing me from his perch, just seconds from walking out the double doors across the street. I looked east, toward the water and my boat. Home sounded like a good idea. I needed to get a shower, put on some deodorant, and breathe something other than dank cell stench. The paper could wait.

Uncle Willee sat in the driver's seat smiling at me from beneath his wide-brimmed palmetto leaf hat, called a "Gus." It's a cowboy hat for hot weather, a lightweight version of the hat made famous by Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove. The brim was soiled and crown wrinkled, worn dirty by a farrier with a fishing addiction. It sagged a bit around the edges but curled up at the ends--a mirrored contrast to his face.

I stuffed my hands in my pockets and sniffed the salty air blowing in over St. Simons, across the marsh, and bringing with it the ripe smell of curdling salt and mud--a function of our geography. The Gulf Stream, some hundred and fifty miles due east, keeps constant pressure against the East Coast's most western edge--something akin to a hedge--causing the "Bermuda High." Thanks to it, the Golden Isles live under a constant sea breeze that keeps both the no-see-ums--invisible gnats with an attitude--and hurricanes at bay.

The coastal rivers of Georgia, like the Satilla, the Altamaha, and the Little Brunswick, flow out of the west Georgia mountains through the Buffalo Swamp and empty into the cordgrass of the marsh flats. Like a seine made of cheesecloth, the marsh filters the flow and sifts the sediment, creating a pluffy, soft mud.

Here in this pungent muck, native anaerobic bacteria decay bottom matter and release a gaseous bouquet that smells like rotten eggs. As the tide recedes, fiddler crabs, snails, worms, and other tiny inhabi­tants burrow into the pluff where they hope to escape being slow-cooked at a broiling 140 degrees. As the tide rises, the critters climb from their holes, where they--like beachcombers--bask and bathe.

During peak tourist season, visitors stroll the sidewalks, sniff the same air, and wrinkle their noses. "Something die?" Technically, yes, the marsh is always dying. But then the tide returns, trades old for new, and the canvas gives birth again.

To us--those who seek the solace of the marsh--it is a stage where God paints--yellow in the morning, green toward noon, brownish in the afternoon, and blood red toward evening. It is the sentinel that stands guard at the ocean's edge, protecting the sea from the runoff that would kill it. It is a selfless and sacrificial place. And when I close my eyes, it is also the smell of home.

When I graduated college, I came back to Brunswick, bought an acre along the Altamaha and a sailboat named Gone Fiction at the annual police auction. She was a thirty-six-foot Hunter and had been confiscated during an offshore drug raid. The SWAT guys at the auction said they'd busted some Florida writer running drugs along the coast. When his books didn't sell, he traded his pen for a habit and joined the dark side. I didn't know a thing about sailing, but she looked cozy--had a bed, toilet, shower, small kitchen, and a bow big enough for a folding chair. Not to mention a rope railing where I could prop up my feet. I sized her up, imagined myself perched on her nose watching the tide roll in and out, and raised my hand. Sold! I got her in the water, motored her upriver to my acre of land, and dropped anchor in water deep enough not to ground her when the tide ran out. She sits about eighty yards offshore, which means when I tell people I live on the water, I'm not kidding.

Unc sat in a black, four-door 1970-something Cadillac hearse pulling a double-axle trailer he'd bought at a U-Haul auction. As a farrier, he uses the trailer as his workshop and his h...

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