Saving Gracie is now complete and available all over the place. I’m excited! It’s a mystery set in a fictional town that very much resembles my own. The two main (POV) characters are Gracie Ouellette and Marcel Trudeau.
Gracie is an older woman who lives in a sort of assisted living situation. Why? She talks to ghosts, so everyone assumes she’s nuts. And Marcel is a police officer who grew up in Coyne Falls and has trouble being a good cop while trying to be everyone’s friend.
Saving Gracie is a lighthearted story, infused with small-town humor, a bit of murder, just enough romance, and one very pushy ghost. A sneak preview follows.
Gracie Ouellette’s dreams of family died the day she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. She was sedated, of course, same as most days, her being incorrigible and all. And the psych nurses were understaffed and cranky, so she wasn’t permitted to hold the child and never knew if her daughter had all of her fingers and toes and red hair like her own.
That was fifty-two years ago today, and Gracie planned to commemorate the date with a hike down the railroad bed followed by a swim in Echo Lake. Most days, this wouldn’t be a problem. But Molly was at the store, which meant no one was in charge, and Jillian, who wasn’t in charge, had nonetheless seized control. All two hundred pounds of her now blocked Gracie’s bedroom door, and she wouldn’t stop saying, “You can’t go.”
“And why is that?” Gracie knew the answer. Jillian, who watched far too many documentaries on alien abduction, was afraid to go outside. Therefore, no one else should go, either.
“Everyone says that lake is disgusting. Foamy as dishwater.”
“No it isn’t.” Gracie tucked her heels against the bed’s pink dust ruffle and counted backwards from five. What did Jillian know? Echo Lake was spring fed with a good runoff, clean enough to drink. If Jillian were brave enough to venture through the front door, she might find this out for herself. “It’s beautiful. Every kid in town swims there.”
“Kids maybe, but you’re seventy-five.”
“Don’t remind me.” Seventy-five was just a number. With it came morning stiffness and creaky knees. But hiking and swimming loosened Gracie’s joints, lifted her spirits, and took her places no one else cared to go. Haunted caves, abandoned quarries, deserted houses—they all had stories to tell, and Gracie listened.
When her feet were too sore for hiking, she rode the lawnmower. What better way to celebrate a summer morning than by drinking in the smell of newly mown grass while bumping over the knots and scars of this rugged New Hampshire land?
Problem was, if she wanted to do any of those things today, she had to find a way past Jillian.
There was the window, of course. Her bedroom was on the first floor, the windows oversized, easily opened, and close to the ground. Climbing through the wide opening and stepping down into Molly’s hummingbird garden wasn’t much harder than walking through the front door.
But Gracie’s shoes were on the plastic mat in the entryway and, while she did enjoy walking barefoot, the hike to Echo Lake was long and rocky.
Back to Jillian, then. Convincing her to step aside could take all day. The woman wasn’t smart, which made discussions one-sided and frustrating. She couldn’t move quickly, either, thanks to bad hips. But she was strong and determined and, like the other boarders, Jillian was a bit delusional.
Gracie stole a glance at her window. Beyond the lace curtains, a drowsy sun slumped in a hazy sky. The day was hot as a griddle, but that was okay—soaring temperatures would make the water more inviting.
“If you go out your window again, I’ll tell Molly, and she’ll call Dr. Usef.”
“Molly will do no such thing.” Probably not, anyway. Molly was a sensible young woman, wise for her years. She wouldn’t see a hike to Echo Lake as evidence of becoming a danger to oneself.
Jillian was tightly wedged, and she showed no sign of backing down. Gracie told herself to be patient, work on being kinder and more sensitive to the special needs of her fellow boarders. But this was a special day, and Gracie had no time to waste on Jillian’s foolishness.
“If you don’t get out of my way,” she said to Jillian, “I’ll tell the little green men to come and see you tonight.”
“You can’t.” Jillian’s confidence collapsed into something far twitchier. “It’s ghosts you talk to, not aliens.”
“Are you sure?” Gracie took a step toward her.
Following a brief hesitation and a drawn-out grumble, Jillian moved to one side. “Try not to drown,” she said. “Molly worries about you.”
“That’s her problem.” With a huff that sounded crankier than she’d intended, Gracie pushed through the door and hurried down the hall, stopping in the entryway long enough to squash her clean socks into dirty sneakers. Then she slipped through the front door while Jillian sputtered.
The midday heat was a hindrance, the air thick and wet and far too hot for July. Even so, Gracie’s steps were bouncy. She’d been a resident of the Blue Horizons Boarding House for going on twenty-five years, and memories of the State Mental Hospital were hazy at best. Even so, time failed to diminish the high spirits that came with walking unescorted.
When she reached the butterfly bushes lining the verge, she paused and pretended to inhale the gooey scent. With a furtive glance at Blue Horizons’s bay window, she eased her way into the brush, then ducked low. Half hidden, she peeked through a box-wire fence into the Thompsons’ yard. She wasn’t spying, exactly—just looking.
The lawn wasn’t mowed, despite Eric Thompson calling himself a landscaper. And the junk cars were still there, despite snippy little Officer Pelletier coming in person and putting orange tags on each and every one. All was quiet, which meant the Thompsons must be at work.
Gracie whistled through her teeth, one sharp burst of sound.
A beagle leaped from the wrap-around porch and bounded across the yard. Like a projectile sausage, he hurled himself headfirst against a seam in the wire mesh. The crash reverberated along the length of the fence. Cicadas stopped thrumming. Squawking bantams flew to the trees. The beagle cartwheeled through the gap.
“Good boy, Scout,” Gracie whispered, already walking away. The dog fell in behind her, a wandering shadow, nose to the ground.
As she walked down Sandpit Road to the railroad bed, Gracie realized even the trees were sweating. Bits of sap dripped to her cheeks and made her hair sticky. Her T-shirt clung like a fussy child while warm droplets dribbled down her forehead and tickled her cheeks. By the time she reached Echo Lake, her neck was slick as a pollywog.
The water, though, was perfect—warm and bright as sun tea. While Scout ground himself into a cool wallow, Gracie waded in with her socks and sneakers on, slowly at first, mindful of the lake’s uneven bottom. The glassy surface crept past her socks and shorts, drenched her shirt, and made her belly quiver. The final step was a big one, a sudden neck-deep plunge that always left her gasping.
A smile eased its way across her lips while quiet stillness seeped through her skin, smoothing away the sharp bite of sadness that always came awake and squalled on this day. With arms thrown wide, she turned her face to the sky and let herself fall.
For a moment she relaxed, cradled in the water’s embrace. Lost in a dream state, she drifted to a better place, a made-up world in which her daughter lived. She was tiny like her mother, smart and pretty with auburn hair. An actress. A singer. Sometimes a poet. She rode horses, skied Loon Mountain, went to college, and became a veterinarian. She married a man who loved her more than life, and they had three kids, all of them redheaded girls.
Her daughter lived a perfect life, and she was happy. Happy and very, very grateful to be alive. Even if it was only a dream.
The tip of Gracie’s nose itched, but she ignored it. She had to focus, keep her daughter close, and not sneeze her away, not yet and especially not today. But no matter how hard she tried to ignore the intrusion, the itch became more of a bother. Ghostly fingertips wandered through her hair. A phantom touch tugged at her eyelids, brushed her cheek, and finally came to rest as a sharp pinch in the dimple of her chin.
“It’s just a bug,” she told herself, distracted for the briefest moment. Too late. Her daughter evaporated and the fantasy world dissolved, leaving Gracie alone and suffocating on this airless day with minnows nibbling her age spots and mosquitoes buzzing past her lips.
Darn insects ruined everything. She swatted at them harder than she meant to. Water bugs scattered, minnows darted away, and a voice so soft she almost missed it came from everywhere in a desperate Help me.
“What did you say?”
It was nothing, of course. But just to be certain, she counted backwards from ten, slowly, one number at a time with Mississippi between them. She must have imagined the voice.
The weeds tightened their grip. The water seemed to boil, though the temperature hadn’t changed. The voice continued its relentless whisper, more insistent with every breath. Help me, help me, help me, please, please, please.
Gracie lunged toward shore. “I haven’t missed a dose,” she told herself. “I can’t be hearing things that aren’t there.” Water sprayed ahead of her when she flung herself to solid ground. Scout ran past her and plunged into the lake, floppy ears pricked in interest. Gracie spun toward him, hands balled into fists and feet ready to run.
She looked out over water calm and clear, realized her mind was playing its usual tricks, and felt like a silly old woman.
With an uneasy laugh, she squatted on the shore and dug algae from her shoelaces. Scout backed out of the water. His woof was more air than voice and ended in a worried little moan.
“Shush, Scout. There’s nothing there.” Even so, a wave of prickles swam over her, and she realized she was sweating again, sweating and shivering at the same time. Scout leaned into her calves and tipped back his head, then let out a mournful howl.
Gracie sank her fingers into the loose folds of the dog’s neck and followed the tilt of his ears to something tangled in the weeds. A clump of flotsam bobbed toward her, and the voice seemed to come from within it, I’m here, I’m here, over and over, louder and louder.
She ran. The beagle scrambled past her and blocked her escape with drawn-back lips and a menacing growl, but his tail wagged, and his eyes filled with apology.
“Not you too, Scout.” Gracie ducked around the dog and skittered toward the road. Best to ignore the voice, go home and pretend this was a dream. She had no time for dead people and their demands, no desire to risk exposing this ghost to the pesky doctor and his endless pills. But when she tried to get away, something cold and unyielding pressed against her chest, wound into her hair, and drew her toward the water, back the way she’d come.
A woman’s voice begged her, Please don’t leave me here alone.
“Find someone else!” The words came out like gravel. Arguing was pointless, always had been. Already something searched for an opening, burrowed into the dark places. The ghost wouldn’t back down. It needed something.
Gracie looked wistfully at the path to Blue Horizons, but allowed the spirit to tow her back into the shallows. She willed herself to remain calm and pliant. If she cooperated, perhaps this ghost would be reasonable, might even allow her to keep an outward appearance of sanity.
Stupid. The dead were selfish. And pushy. And they had a lot of free time in which to figure out how to affect things like water and wind. Even now, a breeze rippled the lake and set the clump of detritus bobbing toward her. A flash of crimson caught her eye as the object crossed the final inches and came to rest, nodding insistently against her knees.
Gracie looked down at Raggedy-Anne hair wrapped in green coontail. She reached out and poked it with stubby fingers, pulled back when it sank, then bounced to the surface. The thing turned beneath the water until finally it floated face-up. Pale blue eyes opened and looked straight at her.
“Great. Just great. Officer Trudeau is gonna lock me up for sure.” With a growl, she slapped at her cheeks. Crying was pointless and weak and never helped anyway.
She gripped a fistful of hair and pulled the head from the water.
“Good boy, Scout,” she said, stroking the beagle with her free hand. “But why do they always pick me? Everyone knows I’m batshit.”
The dog pumped his tail and panted up at her with a satisfied beagle grin. Gracie frowned back. She wanted to bury the head and forget she’d seen it, pretend she didn’t have this so-called gift or condition or whatever it was supposed to be. But escape was unlikely. Phantom hands gripped her shoulders and thrust her toward the road while someone else’s purpose took hold of her feet. She pushed back, a matter of dignity, but she knew she couldn’t last.
“I’m going, ya bully,” she told the air. “It’s not as if I have a choice.”
The head was heavy, the road more uphill than down. By the time she and Scout reached the little police station at the center of Coyne Falls, Gracie was tired and sore. The door was open, so she trudged up the ramp and shuffled inside, resting the disembodied head against the small of her back. She looked up at the counter and wondered what it might be like to be taller than her piddling four feet, nine inches.
A chair scraped the floor, and Officer Marcel Trudeau looked down at her through John Lennon glasses. Gracie had known him since he was a boy, the chubby kid who played with little Molly and Candy on Blue Horizons’s lawn. Back then, she’d thought him average, from cowlicky brown hair to thickset frame to straight B’s on his report cards.
He was thinner now, not bad looking, but still more bulk than height. Must be in his mid-twenties. Marcel had always been kind, never failed to listen to Gracie’s stories, even when they seemed farfetched. Even so, she was glad to have proof.
She held out the head.
“What have you brought me?” The patient look on Marcel’s face didn’t waver. Odd. She’d expected a gasp, maybe a few cuss words.
“Scout found this in Echo Lake.” Gracie hefted the head above her shoulders and deposited it on the clean vinyl counter.
Marcel spoke in a tone he probably reserved for children and the mentally ill. “What do you think it is?”
Gracie watched the dead girl’s eyes. They blinked.
“It’s a head, Officer.” She stared at the redhead. The redhead stared back. Gracie poked the girl’s freckled cheek, looped a finger through her curls. “Isn’t it?”
The forced evenness of Marcel’s breath told her he’d swallowed a sigh. “It’s a handbag.”
“No it isn’t.”
The dead girl’s mouth opened, and she said, Help me.
Marcel lifted the head by its hair. He raised the hinged counter, motioned Gracie through, and then carried the thing down a short hallway to a metal table butted up against a bare wall. Gracie followed with Scout at her heels. And . . . now Marcel was carrying a handbag, not a head at all.
After spreading a clean towel, Marcel upended the bag, and its contents spilled out. A sandwich landed in a splat, along with a hair brush, a cosmetic case, a phone, and a wallet.
Scout lunged for the sandwich. Gracie caught his collar and pulled him away. Fear settled over her, along with the familiar touch of something less ordinary.
Darn ghost. Now she whispered, told Gracie which words to use and insisted she say them out loud. The pushy little dead girl was just getting started.
“Grab that wallet,” Gracie said. “It’s a clue.”
“Gracie.” Marcel looked more worried than annoyed, which only made her feel worse. “It’s really hot out. Let me get you something to drink.”
She focused on the beagle and tried to ignore the pang of disappointment. Marcel was a practical sort, always had been. He might listen, but he’d obviously made up his mind. “I’m fine, Officer.”
“Are you taking your meds?”
“Yes.” Even though she hated them. Talking to ghosts didn’t make a person crazy, did it? And the pills—all they did was make her nervous. Weren’t they supposed to keep the ghosts away?
Not this ghost. The dead redhead had already made herself at home, settled into the empty places that always needed filling. With her came a sense of stubborn attachment along with the scent of cookies, warm from the oven. The ghost spoke, and Gracie realized she’d repeated the sentence aloud.
“Someone will die tonight.” She tried not to say the rest, but the words pushed their way past her throat and jumped from her tongue. “A murder.”
Marcel picked up the wallet and thumbed through the plastic sleeves. “Why do you think that?”
“Because the dead girl says so.” Gracie stood as tall as she could and spoke more boldly than she felt. “She’s right beside you.” No point mentioning she wasn’t wearing her head.
“Is this her?” Marcel held out a driver’s license. A pretty woman with soft brown hair and clear blue eyes looked out from beneath the plastic laminate. Her name was Shay Cooper.
“Don’t think so.” The handbag was gone, and the head now lay supine in its place. Blue eyes stared at the ceiling while crimson ringlets swirled past the table’s edge. “The eyes match, but the hair’s the wrong color.”
“Hair can be dyed.” He turned the license over in his hand. “How old is your ghost?”
Gracie squinted at the china-doll face, its eyes now closed, lips slightly parted. “Eighteen? Maybe twenty?” Too young to be dead.
Marcel seemed to consider for a moment, and Gracie’s heart hesitated along with her breath.
“Wait right here.”
He left her alone and jogged to the rear of the building. This might be a good time to head for home; no good would come from being a bother. But Marcel returned before she’d taken a step, and he brought a ventilated box marked Evidence.
“It’s just in case,” he said.
He squatted down to Gracie’s eye level, which was kind of him, and he took a moment to pat the beagle. Most likely, he needed time to choose his words, say them in his head before speaking aloud. His mother must have taught him how to talk to crazy folks, her being a sheriff’s deputy and all.
Finally he said, “I know you believe in ghosts and stuff, and I know you think what this hallucination told you is real.” He looked self-conscious and skeptical, but a part of him looked curious, too. “I’ll track down Shay Cooper and make sure she’s okay, but as for somebody dying tonight—” He shrugged, but the gesture didn’t make his words come out any less sticky. “I hope this time you’ve got it wrong.”