Lucky Me Publisher
BRENDAN THOUGHT LYING to Analise’s mom would be the trickiest part, but Analise said she was spending the night at a friend’s house and she was such a good kid that her mother never even questioned it. No, the biggest challenge had been keeping their destination a secret from his Analise. He’d never considered how hard that would be. But that was the way he was. He didn’t see the big picture, didn’t realize he wasn’t seeing it until it was too late.
He’d been obsessed with the town they were headed to for weeks now, ever since he’d taken the detour and seen it for himself. Now returning to Diablo Springs was all he could think about. That and bringing Analise with him. It felt urgent, the need to bring her there.
Tomorrow they’d be breaking the news to Analise’s mother that her sixteen-year-old daughter was pregnant, but that didn’t seem as important as what they’d be doing tonight.
Tonight, they’d be sleeping under the stars in the back of his pickup. In Diablo Springs.
“We’re almost there,” he said, glancing at Analise as she shifted restlessly beside him.
“I wish you’d tell me where there is.”
“Just a little farther. It’ll be worth the wait. I promise.”
Analise’s mom had grown up in Diablo Springs and her great-grandmother still lived there, but Analise had never even visited. Every time she’d asked about it, her mother got cagey and shut her down. Not a big deal, except Analise suspected her father lived in Diablo Springs, too, and that her mom had been lying about not knowing how to find him.
He shifted, eyeing the sky. Lightning exploded across the surface and blackened clouds dipped low, scraping the mountains and teasing the parched and cracked desert floor with promises of rain it didn’t deliver. The air felt electric.
Rain would mess up all his plans.
At last the exit sign appeared, DIABLO SPRINGS NEXT EXIT. Analise leaned forward, her lips moving silently over the name as she read it.
Her eyes widened and she shot him a stunned glance.
“I saw the exit when I was driving home from my sister’s house a couple weeks ago. There was construction and I had to take a detour.” He shrugged, grinning.
“And you didn’t say anything?”
He should’ve expected that, should’ve had a ready answer. “I . . . I wasn’t sure it was the right place. I didn’t want to say until I was.”
“Did you go there? Did you stop and see it?” Analise asked.
He could feel her gaze on him, but he didn’t want her to see his eyes. Just in case.
“I didn’t have time to stop. It was late and I had to work the next day.”
More lies. He’d swerved to take the exit, answering a call that had felt like a tug at his gut, a lure in his brain. He had stopped. More than that. He’d stayed so long that he never made it to work the next morning. Or the one after.
He couldn’t tell Analise that, though. She’d want to know what he’d been doing.
“I found something on the Web, too,” he said brightly. Another lie, but he couldn’t tell her the truth. “The town’s got a lot of history.”
Her jaw dropped. “You researched its history?”
Brendan flushed. “I didn’t research it. I just saw some stuff.”
He’d been hoping she’d ask. “Apaches used to live there before someone found silver in the mountains and chased them off. After that, it was all gunslingers and wild west. Like in the movies.”
His voice had grown wistful and a strange yearning formed in his chest. He could almost taste the air, as it must have been over a hundred years ago. He could almost see himself with a pistol strapped to his leg and a rifle to his saddle.
“The Apaches used the hot springs for sacred ceremonies. That kind of thing. The water’s gone now, though.”
“What do you mean it’s gone?”
He shrugged again. “I don’t know. Gone. There’s just a big dry hole there now.”
“I just said I don’t know.”
“Okay. Just asking.” Her eyes narrowed.
“Are you giving me shit because I didn’t read that far?” he countered, his voice sharp.
It stopped him for a moment. He never spoke to Analise that way.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “You’re acting weird.”
He swallowed, suddenly uneasy. “I just thought you’d be excited, is all.”
Analise reached over and squeezed hand. “You’re freaked out about the baby, aren’t you? It’s okay. Me, too. I’m scared to tell my mom. She’s going to have a meltdown . . .”
She kept talking but her voice faded as his thoughts returned to Diablo Springs. He could smell the dark lore, the sulfurous history, the hot violence. It’d been the kind of place where you’d either get screwed or killed, sometimes both. It fired his blood, imagining it.
“Did you hear me?”
Analise’s hurt tone snapped him out of his reverie.
“Everything’s going to be okay, babe,” he rushed to reassure her.
Apparently it was the right thing to say. She gave him her sweet smile and went back to looking out the window as they zigzagged into the mountains. Finally, they peaked and started down the other side into the basin where Diablo Springs squatted like a dirty smear on a pretty painting.
“It feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Analise murmured, frowning.
Brendan shifted uncomfortably as doubt nudged through his anticipation. He’d been so excited to bring her here, but as they crossed the town’s border, a feeling of dread began to curdle in his stomach. He didn’t understand it.
He turned onto Main Street where one traffic light blinked yellow in all directions. The building fronts looked like they must have a century ago only now most of them had boarded up windows or FOR SALE signs on their doors. It looked desolate and ugly. It looked like the last place on earth he should have brought Analise Beck.
“Everything’s closed up,” Analise said, looking out the window. “It’s creepy.”
“I thought you were curious about where your mom came from,” he said defensively.
“Curious, yeah, but . . . I didn’t know you were going to bring me here. I thought we were going someplace nice, you know, like a hotel.”
Brendan swallowed hard. Of course she’d thought that. Only an idiot would think a surprise trip to a ghost town would make a sixteen-year-old happy. The big picture had eluded him again. Scowling, he clenched his hands around the steering wheel and kept driving.
LESS THAN A quarter mile of open scrub and cactus stretched between the road and the place where the old springs had once flowed. A bridge and walkway used to lead from the Diablo Springs Hotel to the hot pools, and guests would make the short journey by foot. Brendan knew that decking had once surrounded the springs where bathers could sit and dangle their feet in the water.
Now the splintered railings poked up from the remnants like broken bones. It was all overrun, devoured by the hot sun and burning grit of the desert. As he pulled closer, he could see what was left of it, ruins around a black chasm.
Following the road to the huge hollow, he watched the horizon devour the last glow of sunlight. In the fresh dusk, he stopped and hopped out of the truck. Before he went around to Analise’s side, he took a deep breath of the seared air. Even the heat felt good.
Analise opened her door and Brendan hurried over to help her down. She was so small and fine boned; he couldn’t touch her without wanting to protect her. And now, with the baby coming, he had that much more to worry about.
He knew her mom thought he was too old for her. Too old with no future. He couldn’t blame her. He worked for a landscaper, which was a fancy way of saying he mowed other people’s lawns for a living. What mother wanted her superstar daughter attached to a man with dirt under his fingernails and grass stains on his clothes? Once they told Ms. Beck about the baby, she’d hate him. Actually, she’d just hate him more.
The air was thick and close, still a hundred degrees even at sunset. The low scrub crept down the surrounding mountains and right up to the sides of the dirt road. Beyond, a wild assortment of spiky and thorny desert plants sprawled out on the abandoned grounds, some blooming with wild pinks and corals. Not a blade of grass was in sight. The land was tough, barbed, dead inside. Abandoned and hard to love. He’d felt an instant bond with the place.
Analise looked around with something akin to horror. What had she expected? Picket fences and petunias?
He pointed to the black ravine sloping down just ahead. It had shocked him the first time he’d seen it. It opened so suddenly, like a hole straight to hell. As dry now as the crackling air. Hard to imagine it had ever held healing waters.
Analise turned away from the dirt fissure and stared out at the silhouetted town. A few lights twinkled in windows as night worked its way into homes. Her expression, her reaction to his surprise, wasn’t at all what he’d imagined. Anger stirred beneath his breastbone.
He reached in the back seat and pulled out a blanket, which he spread over an unlikely patch of even ground. As he smoothed it down, he discovered a miniscule sprouting of what looked like grass. Grass, even here. Feeling somehow betrayed by it, he twisted it until its grasping roots snapped and hurled it away.
“Sit down, babe. I brought us a little picnic.”
Analise gave the blanket a nervous look. She held her self stiff as a doll, seemingly undecided about which way to face. The town and the ravine were like warring poles and she the metal pin in between. Brendan frowned.
“I don’t like it here, Brendan. Let’s go.”
How like his little princess to find this place that welcomed him like family distasteful. It was nothing but dirt. Just like him.
“Go where?” he said bitterly. “Maybe to the Ritz? You think I got that kind of money?”
Analise looked instantly contrite, which only made him feel like a bigger shit.
“Brendan, I’m sorry. This was a great surprise. I do want to see it all, but it’s getting really dark.”
“It’s . . . I mean . . . Don’t tell me you don’t feel it.”
In fact, as she spoke, pointing out the clustering darkness, he did feel it. A disturbance, rippling through the air like the hot and gritty breeze. It held a tension, a feeling of violation, a sense of aggression. And he liked it. Brendan shook his head.
“You afraid of the dark now, babe?”
Her smile was small and forced.
He got up and went to the truck where he rummaged for his flashlight, hoping its batteries were still good. He turned it on and a pale, buttery beam chased back the shadows. It waned after the initial burst, but held.
“Better?” he asked.
Analise nodded without much conviction. “I guess. It’s just really creepy here.”
It didn’t matter that she was right, it made him mad. “Do you know how hard it was to get off work so I could bring you here?”
Tears made her eyes shiny and luminous. “I know, I’m sorry. It’s just . . . I’m scared, Brendan.”
“You’re scared of everything. You—” He stopped abruptly and scanned the area around them. He’d heard something.
“What?” Analise said.
“Shh.” He stood, searching the darkness. The feeble glow of the flashlight reached only a foot or two in front of him. Past that it was all huddled shadows and looming shapes. He strained with the effort to hear. The quiet folded in and stretched out in a hiss. Then a slight, slithering sound reached his ears. Like dirt spilling into an empty hole.
In unison, he and Analise looked to the ravine. He took a step closer.
“No. Brendan, no. Let’s just get out of here.”
He waved her off and took another step. Frozen, Analise watched. The sound came again. Loose soil and rock sliding down the side. As if something were climbing up.
“What do you see?” she whispered.
Brendan shook his head and moved closer to the edge of the chasm. A rock joined the slight avalanche of dirt. It clicked and thumped down and down and down. Analise made a whimpering sound and for a moment, his foggy mind cleared with a suddenness that made him stagger. He shook his head, stunned by the sudden clarity. What the hell were they doing here?
Analise was right. This place . . . It wasn’t natural. It felt wrong. Something rank hovered in the air like a layer of dust.
More rocks, the earth slide increased. As if something had lost its foothold and slipped back a few feet, causing the rocks to cave in around it.
Brendan was almost to the edge. His flashlight crawled over the terrain and then inched up to the piled dirt circling the chasm. The blackness around him seemed more complete because of the tiny rent he and his light put in it. He acknowledged the fear that threatened to buckle his knees even as he refused to give into it.
He stopped a few steps from the plunging brink.
“Brendan,” Analise said, her voice a shaky whisper in the disturbing dark.
He leaned forward, trying to peer into the pit without actually going to the rim. He couldn’t see a damn thing, but more dirt shifted and skipped into the depths. Dirt he’d dislodged? Or—
“Brendan, please come back. Please?”
A deep and dank odor wafted up toward him. Like something dead and long ago rotted had escaped its sealed chamber. What the hell was it? Another step and then a rush of air blasted out in a gust that lifted his hair and scared a “What the fuck!” right out of him. The scrabbling sound raced up the ravine wall and Brendan stumbled back, shouting again as he tried to catch his balance. Behind him, Analise began to scream.
“Run!” he hollered, racing past her to the truck.
She didn’t even know from what, but she didn’t stop to ask. She scrambled through the door he held open, over the seat to her side as he jumped in behind the wheel and threw the gear into reverse. The truck fish tailed before spinning around and out the way they’d come. Shaking and crying Analise turned in her seat and looked back.
“What do you see?” he demanded.
She was sobbing, too hysterical to even answer. He tore his gaze from the road and looked in the rearview mirror. A pale light seemed to hover over the pit. What was it? A face? But it glowed, not like skin but— Without warning, it shifted and it felt . . . it felt like it looked at him. Analise screamed.
“What is it?” Brendan shouted. “Is it following us?”
“I don’t know,” Analise sobbed.
Brendan had the pedal to the floor and the truck felt like it had wings as it flew across the desert, barely staying on the excuse for a road. It hadn’t taken them this long to get there, had it? Shit, was he lost? Had he gotten turned around? Where was the moon? Where was the fucking town?
“Why did you bring me here?” Analise was crying over and over. “Why, why?”
He turned in his seat and looked back. Nothing following, and yet . . . a glimmer. The town. How had the town ended up on his right? Didn’t matter, as long as he got there. He cranked the wheel, his instincts telling him he was backtracking while his eyes told him he was headed the right way.
“No,” Analise shouted. “You’re going back.”
He opened his mouth to tell her she was wrong, but now he was completely disoriented and his headlights picked out the gaping ravine ahead. At seventy miles an hour, they were going in.
He turned hard left, taking the truck into a crazy spin at the edge of the abyss. He felt the wheels lose traction. Felt the pull of gravity trying to suck them down. The back end hovered for an instant over the great nothingness of it, and then slowly, the truck began to slide down.
SOME SAY DESTINY is unavoidable. Some say a person’s whole life is determined before he or she is even born. Reilly Alexander didn’t buy into that, which wasn’t the same as saying he didn’t believe it. When he looked back on his life, it seemed fate had done more than drive him around; it had plotted out a specific course that brought him here, now, to a bookstore in Los Angeles where he would meet his destiny.
“We’ve put your table right up front,” the Barnes & Noble manager told him.
“I think you’ll have a good turnout. Your book has been selling quite well for us.”
This was his fourth book, and he still couldn’t get used to hearing that it wasn’t complete crap. Maybe he’d never get used to hearing it. A part of him still believed that it was his nefarious and disastrous venture into the music business that brought the readers to his books, not the writing. Not his stories, but the story of a failed rocker turned literary genius. He smirked to himself at that. Yeah, that.
But fans did come. The women, as often as not, looking for something better than a book to take to bed. The young musicians came because they thought some of his luck would rub off on them. It didn’t matter that his luck in the music business had run out fast. The others . . . He still hadn’t figured out what drew the others. All in all, though, he ate well, traveled in fair style, and lived a life of quasi-fame. In honesty, more than he’d ever expected of himself.
He ran a hand over his nearly shaved head, still expecting the shoulder-length shag he’d worn until a few months ago when he’d decided it was time to cut even that from his life. The impeccably dressed manager he followed to the table hadn’t said a word about Reilly’s appearance, but it was there in the look that skimmed his Flogging Molly T-shirt and faded blue jeans. In the beginning, when the first book had come out, he’d tried the dressing up and felt like an even bigger idiot and imposter. The slacks and button-down had fit his image like panty hose and a sunbonnet.
“Just let me know if you need anything,” the manager said before going about his business. A cold beer would be nice, but Reilly refrained from asking and simply thanked the man. All he could hope was that the next two hours went fast.
During his college years Reilly had made his living as a lead singer and songwriter of a band called Badlands. When the group broke up after three years and one hit single, Reilly had been left with a bit of fame and little fortune. Individually, each of the band members had branched out and failed to produce anything worth listening to. Reilly had resorted to writing songs for others until he’d finally settled down and pounded out the novel he’d been thinking of for years.
Four books later, he’d gained enough traction to warrant a fifth. Riding the infamy tide with Badlands had taught him not to believe his own press, though. They loved his books today, but only if he had something better to provide tomorrow. His problem of the hour was that he didn’t. The channel of ideas he’d been surfing had disappeared and left him lost and in a panic over what came next. Was it time for yet another career change?
The signing started like clockwork with a steady trickle of readers who had fished his other titles off the shelves and now wanted his signature on the new one. It never felt real to scrawl his name on the title page, but he tried not to let it show. A few strays showed up, too, most of them looking for the bathroom, a couple in search of Cinnabon and its seductive aroma.
When a young man in board shorts and an old Badlands concert T-shirt came up to the table, Reilly immediately took note. He hadn’t seen one of those shirts in years. It made him feel nostalgic for a minute.
The kid told him, “I’m writing a report for my music history class about one-hit wonders. You know, where are they now?”
“They’re all in hiding,” Reilly said. He knew for a fact that one or two of his own one-hit disaster group would probably shoot the pimply kid if he tried to out them. Oblivious, the kid sat on the edge of Reilly’s table and picked up a copy of his latest book, Broken.
“So is this based on your life?” he asked.
Reilly gave him a steady look. “It’s about a maniac who stalks groupies and murders them.”
The kid nodded, still wearing the idiot smile.
“So, no,” Reilly said patiently, “it’s not about my life.”
The kid let go a snort of laughter. “Good thing, huh?”
And so it went, until finally, the lull gave him a chance to sit back and drink the water so thoughtfully provided by one of the cute sales clerks.
Reilly looked up to find an older woman standing in front of him. Fine-boned and birdlike, she had paper-thin skin the color of toffee—not black, brown, or white, but a mixture that defied racial claims. Deep lines fanned from the corners of eyes that sparkled like black diamonds. She wore pink lipstick—a young girl’s color, but she managed to carry it off. Perhaps it was the white-toothed smile. A turban in bright African colors wrapped around her hair and a long flowing tunic matched it. Black pants with precise creases covered her legs and black sneakers completed the outfit. Reilly stared at the athletic shoes with a bemused smile. The words super granny came to mind.
Behind her stood a hodgepodge of humanity that Reilly couldn’t have dreamed up and fictionalized if he’d tried. Like some kind of comic book depiction of a crowd, they clustered together, some extremely tall and others excessively short, some unnaturally thin and others uncommonly fat. Their clothes crossed the spectrum from white gauze to fuchsia, tie-dye to black satin. One man wore white gloves and a priest’s vestments. Either this was the weirdest book club on the planet or they’d been beamed down from a circling vessel. The group watched the old woman with avid interest.
“You are Nathan Reilly Alexander?” she said, her voice strong and clear.
No one called him Nathan. If it wouldn’t have been such a pointless pain in the ass to do it, he’d have had the name removed from record. “It’s Reilly. Reilly Alexander.”
He reached for the book she held out and opened it to the title page.
“You can make it out to Chloe Lamont,” she said. “Your guide to your destiny.”
He paused, pen poised over the page. “Come again?”
“You’ve been waiting for me, haven’t you?”
Reilly gave her a slanted look and a head shake. “Can’t say that I have.”
“You haven’t been thinking of fate, of your destiny? Of where you go from here?”
He wanted to scoff, but of course he’d been doing more than thinking about it. He’d been dwelling on it. He wrote, To Chloe, enjoy the book, signed it, and handed it back to her. She took it with a strange smile.
“Don’t you wonder why I’m here?”
“It’s a book signing. People are supposed come to them.”
“There’s a town called Diablo Springs,” she said, ignoring his sarcasm. She had a rich and melodic voice with a trace of an unidentifiable accent that teased the ends of her words. “It was a notorious place once. Do you know how it got its name?”
Reilly shrugged. He knew, but obviously she had her own theory and was dying to tell him.
“It’s not named for the hot springs, as many mistakenly believe,” she said. “It’s called Diablo because it’s haunted by the devil himself.”
“Interesting,” he answered, wishing she’d move along.
She stared at a point over his shoulder and her body became unnaturally still. For reasons he couldn’t explain, every hair on Reilly’s body stood on end. He thought of pushing away from the table and bolting, but the idea of it was ridiculous enough to keep him rooted.
As if hearing his thoughts, she snapped her attention back to him. “Diablo Springs is home to spirits that will never find peace. You’re familiar with this place, of course.”
“Obviously. You know the answer to that.”
She nodded. “I’ve been called there.”
“Then you should go.”
“I’ve been called to bring you. I’m leaving tonight.”
“Listen, Ms. Lamont—”
“You may call me Chloe.”
He’d pass on that offer. “I don’t know what you’ve heard about Diablo Springs, Ms. Lamont, but I can pretty much guarantee that it isn’t true. It’s just a dried-up old town.”
“A ghost town, but only the ghosts know it.”
“If you say so.”
“Aren’t you curious about who is calling me?”
“Not even if it’s Carolina Beck?”
Had she said Carolina Beck? That got Reilly’s full attention. He hadn’t thought of Carolina Beck since the last time she’d slammed the door in his face. Her granddaughter, Gracie, was another story altogether. He was pretty sure he’d never stopped thinking about Gracie. Once upon a time, sparkles and unicorns had filled Gracie’s eyes and Reilly Alexander, her heart.
But that was a long, long time ago.
“You’re friends with Carolina Beck?” he asked skeptically.
Her spirit? “She’s dead?”
Chloe didn’t answer.
Reilly leaned forward, intrigued now. “How is she calling you?”
Chloe leaned in, “How did I know you’d care?”
A pale man appeared at Chloe’s side, younger than she by about twenty years, but still graying at the temples. Tall and skeletal, he struck Reilly as a hybrid of a vampire and Abraham Lincoln. Where Chloe was color, he was transparent. He put a protective hand on Chloe’s waist and a watchful eye on Reilly.
“You’re looking for your next story,” Chloe went on. “You’re worried because you can’t find one. It’s a question of destiny, but you can’t see what’s right under your nose.”
“And you can?” Reilly said.
“You’re part of this story, Nathan Reilly Alexander.”
“And just what kind of story would that be?”
“A ghost story, of course.”
GRACIE BECK LEANED back from her computer and stared at the brochure she’d created for a distance education program. The banner read, “See the world from the other side of the textbook.” It was the kind of program she’d longed to go on when she was in college. But by then she’d had a baby, a job, and more life experience than she cared to remember.
She saved the file and leaned back in her chair. This evening, the house seemed cavernous, though in reality it was just a tiny one-story bungalow built in the giddy days following World War II. San Diego was filled with houses like this one. Apart from the two bedrooms—hers and her daughter, Analise’s—there was a nook that doubled as an office, a living room/family room, and a kitchen with enough space for a dinette. The yard was small, but Lake Murray, where she could walk her pair of horse-sized dogs, Tinkerbelle and Juliet, wasn’t far off. \
Her third dog, a petite Yorkie named Romeo, sat on her lap while she worked. Gracie absently scratched behind his ears.
She supposed she should get used to the silence in the house. Analise was sixteen and soon she’d be off to college. She was an honor student with gifts that ranged from math to music. First-chair orchestra, accelerated calculus; she’d have her pick of universities. Gracie would miss her, but she was so proud.
Analise was at a sleepover tonight at her girlfriend’s. Nothing uncommon and yet the twilight hours had been filled with a bad feeling that wouldn’t go away. Her daughter had texted an hour or so ago—the kind of sweet check-in she always did—but still . . . something felt off. Gracie had tried to talk herself out of worrying but finally she’d called Analise and gotten her voice mail.
Again, nothing to worry about. So why was she so anxious?
Standing, Gracie stretched, wincing as her joints creaked and muscles groaned. She’d just celebrated her thirty-third birthday, but she felt ancient. All three dogs stood when she did, but Juliet gave a sudden, low growl that lifted the fine hairs at Gracie’s nape. Tinkerbelle raised her head, ears pricked.
Probably nothing more than the wind in the trees, but Gracie scooped up Romeo and let the big dogs escort her to the hall. She paused at Analise’s door and listened, though she didn’t expect to hear anything. Analise was gone. Quietly, she turned the knob and pushed the door open.
The darkness and shadows seemed to fold over one another as she stepped inside her daughter’s bedroom and stared with a mixture of worry and confusion. On any given day, a chaos of jeans, peeled off and left where they dropped, shirts discarded with sleeves half in, half out, shoes strewn in between with stray socks and hair things—all would have littered the floor. But tonight it was spotless.
The whole week Gracie had noticed little things that seemed out of character for Analise. Her hair styled out of her face, her makeup less severe, a grouchy mumble in the morning instead of a smile. But none of it sent up the kind of red flag the clean room did.
A sound came from the front of the house and both Juliet and Tinkerbelle spun around with bared teeth and deep barks. Romeo joined in, late on the uptake but determined to be as fierce as his giant counterparts. He squirmed to get down and Gracie set him on the floor. Immediately he tore out of the room.
Gracie strained to hear beyond the yapping animals as she followed their furious barks. The hallway had never seemed so long, so dim, so cut off from the rest of the house. Gracie rounded the corner into the front room, filled with irrational fear. It was empty, of course. No intruder could make it past her dogs and the front door remained closed, the windows shut tight. Everything locked up. But Gracie couldn’t shake the nagging apprehension.
Without warning, Juliet launched herself at the front door, barking like a rabid wolf. Tinkerbelle charged just a half step behind and Romeo hopped between them. Over their ruckus, Gracie heard a sound, a scratching from the other side. Slowly she approached as the dogs frothed in their excitement.
From outside Gracie heard a long, agonized shriek echo on the wind. High-pitched and loud, it raced through her blood like ice and brought the word keening into her head.
Anxious, Gracie stepped forward. Her palms were damp as she braced them on the door and stood on tiptoe so she could see out the peephole.
The porch was empty, lit by the bright light over the door. A strong wind blew the branches of the giant pepper tree in the front yard, making a rustling sound as it blustered through the dangling limbs. For a moment, it seemed that someone stood beneath it. A woman . . . a small, bent woman. Familiar, yet too unlikely to be more than a trick of the eye.
Still, the woman looked like her Grandma Beck.
The telephone rang, startling a scream out of Gracie. She spun around and let out another scream when she saw the woman from outside sitting calmly at her dinette.
Gracie’s eyes had not deceived her. The woman’s face was deeply lined, aged since the last time Gracie had seen her, but unmistakable. She wore a house dress of pastel plaid, pearlescent snaps down the front with big square pockets. A lighter and box of Virginia Slims menthol cigarettes was in the right one. Numb, Gracie stared into her rheumy eyes and felt tears prick her own.
“Grandma Beck?” she whispered.
A sane part of her mind recognized that this could only be an illusion, but every beloved feature seemed so real. The gleam of pink scalp beneath the tufts of white hair, the downturn of her eyes at the corners, the deep groves around her lips from puckering as she drew on her cigarettes. Gracie smelled the smoke that clung to her and beneath it, the light scent of Skin So Soft bath oil, her grandmother’s favorite.
The phone rang again, insistent. Gracie ignored it. No one called the house phone anymore except telemarketers and politicians.
Grandma Beck said nothing. She lifted a book she held in her lap as if to show it. Frowning, Gracie tipped her head and stared at the worn, brown cover, the word LEDGER embossed in elaborate scroll at the center. Her grandma’s hands shook as she held it out. Gracie reached for it as the phone rang again, a shrill demand. Annoyed, Gracie reached for it, intending to hang up on whoever called, but Grandma Beck began to fade.
“No,” Gracie said, snatching her hand back. “No, don’t go.”
Silly, when she knew her grandma wasn’t really there. A gentle smile curved the woman’s thin lips and Grandma flickered, like a candle in a breeze, and vanished completely.
The third ring of the phone made her spin, snatch up receiver and jab the talk button. “What?” she demanded, still staring at the chair where her grandmother had sat, still smelling the faint scent of smoke and bath oil. Her heart hurt and those prickly tears began to spill. Some spiritual part of her recognized what had just happened, but she didn’t want to acknowledge it.
The man’s voice on the other end stirred a memory, though she didn’t place it until he told her his name.
“Eddie Rodriguez?” she repeated with both confusion and disbelief.
“Yeah. Remember me?”
They’d gone to grade school, junior high, and high school together. How could she forget?
“Listen, Gracie, I’ve got some bad news. I think you’d better come home.”
“Home?” she said, reaching for the edge of the counter to brace herself. Diablo Springs was a lot of things to her. But it wasn’t home.
The tears came faster, and she clenched her eyes, the memory of her grandma seated at her table so sharp and poignant that she had to bite her lip to hold back the sob.
“It’s your grandma,” Eddie said, like she’d known he would.
He paused and took a breath. Gracie did, too, steeling herself for his next words. “I’m sorry. There’s no easy way to say it. Or explain it for that matter. Gracie, your grandma’s dead.”
The words rolled over her like a numbing tide.
“Are you there?”
“Yes. I’m here.”
“Okay.” He stopped again and this time it made Gracie’s heart lodge somewhere in her throat. “There’s more,” he said finally.
She swallowed, feeling like she’d been sealed in an airtight silo that filtered every sound but her thumping heart.
“Is— Gracie, do you have a daughter?”
Check Erin’s blog for more pages!
|eBook & Trade Paperback
Lucky Me Publisher
Amazon ASIN: B00QJ2YPZE
BN ID: 294-0150250307
Pub. Date: December 2, 2014
Order Diablo Springs
Sign up for Erin Quinn's
or enter Erin's monthly contest to be automatically added and
eligible for free books.
Erin Quinn loves to talk to readers. If you have a book club or reading group and would like to read one of my books, let me know! Please contact me for more information.