FIRSTWildCard: Never Gone
It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Laurel Garver holds degrees in English and journalism and earns a living as a magazine editor. She enjoys quirky independent films, word games, British television, Celtic music, and mentoring teens at her church. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.
Visit the author’s website.
Days after her father’s death, fifteen-year-old Dani Deane begins seeing him all around New York—wading through discarded sketches in her room, roaming the halls at church, socializing at his post-funeral reception. Is grief making her crazy? Or could her dad really be lingering between this world and the next, trying to contact her?
Dani desperately longs for his help. Without him keeping the peace, Dani’s relationship with her mother is deteriorating fast. Soon Mum ships her off to rural England with Dad’s relatives for a visit that Dani fears will become a permanent stay. But she won’t let her arty, urban life slip away without a fight, especially when daily phone calls with her lab partner Theo become her lifeline.
To find her way home, Dani must somehow reconnect with Mum. But as she seeks advice from relatives and insights from old letters, she uncovers family secrets that shake her to the core. Convinced that Dad’s ghost alone can help her, she sets out on a dangerous journey to contact him one last time.
List Price: $9.89
Paperback: 236 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (September 14, 2012)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Identity groups? he’d guess. Circles of moral responsibility? Subjects of your latest drawing? Blimey, is it the multiple points of view in Renoir’s group paintings?
Nope, he’d never get it. He never saw those coffee-ringed magazine covers in the ICU waiting room. He was the patient. And even though he died two days ago, I can’t stop playing Three Things on elevators.
By the time I reach the seventh floor, I have a strep-like ache in my throat. I shuffle into the hall, hugging a packet of Dad’s memorial service bulletins to my chest. I won’t lose it. I won’t. The minute I let one toe stray into that quicksand, it will suck me right under.
As I trudge toward our apartment, every muscle fiber screams, “No! Run!” like I’m the ditzy chick in some horror movie about to go explore the haunted attic alone.
The moment I slide my key in the lock, my mother yanks open the door. She stands there in her cashmere suit, fists on hips, dry-eyed and smelling of Tresor perfume, like she’d spent the afternoon in client meetings rather than a crematorium in Greenwich Village. I bet she’d let her long-lost Central Pennsylvania accent slip out before she’d ever shed a tear.
“Dani! Where have you been? I’ve been sick with worry. Your grandfather’s cab got back ages ago, and he said you were right behind him.”
“You didn’t get my message?”
She sags a little. “Do you have any idea how many people have left messages today?”
“Sorry, really. I, uh, stayed late to help with this.” I hand her the packet of bulletins, still warm from the copier. “The secretary let me do the layout. And a special cover.”
“So all this time you’ve been at church?”
I nod and follow her into the dining room, where the table is set for six. She tosses the packet onto the sideboard, then turns, frowning, to inspect my ink-stained fingers. “What on earth? You had a nail appointment.”
If she’d look in the packet, she might have a clue where the hours went and how I got so inky. But as usual, she can’t be bothered with anything tainted by stained glass and steeples.
I glance at Dad’s chair, wishing he were here to run interference. He’d compliment my skillful hands, explain how I can’t draw wearing those thick acrylic tips. But his chair is empty, and no matter how hard I wish it, I’ll never hear his voice again.
“Sorry. I just…ran out of time.”
“This simply won’t do, darling.” Mum prods my ragged cuticles. “You can’t stand in a receiving line and shake a hundred hands looking like this. Go wash up, and I’ll give you a manicure after dinner.”
Nice. Deviate from Mum’s precious plan and I’m dismissed like a coffee-spilling, Xerox-breaking temp. I doubt anyone will give a hoot about my stupid nails tomorrow.
I open my mouth to argue, then clamp it shut. If Dad were here, he’d say it was “jolly nice of your mum to offer” and make the sign language motion for “honor.” My cue to remember the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” To remember our long talks about Mum and God and how being a sullen jerk when she pushes my buttons only makes my faith a joke to her. Hypocrisy. A lie.
I sigh. “Okay, Mum.”
When I look toward Dad’s chair again, he nods and mouths, Well done.
He runs a hand through his thick, ginger-blond hair and smiles. His blue eyes crinkle in the corners. I want to run to him and kiss those crinkles, kiss his hawk nose and big ears. Hang on and never let go. But I can’t move, can scarcely breathe. There’s no sign that his face was a crazy quilt of stitches, purple welts and crusted bandages. That machines kept his lungs working.
Mum waves a napkin in my face. “Dani? Hello? You all right?”
I peer around her. Dad’s chair is empty again, but the placemat at his space is askew. No way did Madame Perfect do that.
“Danielle?” Mum touches my arm and I jerk to attention.
“Sorry. I was just remembering —” I rifle through my coat pockets. “Here’s the receipts and change from the taxi. And I’m not hungry. But…I’ll take care of my nails. Now. On my own. But thanks for offering. I guess I’ll go now. To my room. So, um, bye.”
I stumble down the hall and pull my bedroom door closed behind me. For a dizzy moment, I grip the knob and gulp in air. I’m all right. It was nothing. A flash. A brain burp. After spending hours drawing his portrait from an old photo, I must have his face burned onto my retinas like an afterimage.
Except he moved. Gestured. Communicated. Bumped a placemat. I don’t think that’s usual for a grief hallucination.
Conflicting feelings scamper inside me like crazed squirrels. All around me is nothing but more chaos. Deep drifts of crumpled Kleenex, unfinished sketches, textbooks, and lotion tubes litter the floor. My bed’s lost under heaps of laundry. In one corner, my half-packed suitcase lays open beside an unopened stack of Christmas gifts. When Mum gets a spare moment to see this place, she’s going to flip.
“Dani?” Aunt Cecily calls outside my door. “Back, are you?”
I turn from the mess and open my door. Dad’s older sister shifts nervously in her tweed overcoat and tugs on a lock of her bobbed, sandy hair. She hands me a white garment bag from Macy’s. “Your mother asked me to find you something dark and dressy to wear tomorrow. None of your skirts or dresses is quite right for the occasion, she said.”
“Probably not.” I rip away the plastic. Something black and blandly shapeless emerges. Lord have mercy. What fashion travesty has Aunt Cardigan-Khaki-Loafers decided to inflict on me? She must’ve fallen into the clutches of Macy’s most sadistic sales clerk, or the most clueless — someone who assumes every Brit takes fashion tips from the queen.
Cecily’s forehead puckers with worry. “Is it all right, dearest?”
“It’s…nice,” I say, trying to not cringe as I rub the scratchy fabric between my fingers.
“You hate it.” She blushes, two red splotches spreading across her milky English skin.
Dad looked just like that whenever I asked him to pick up tampons at the store. I wince and turn away.
“We can take it back,” Cecily blurts, misreading me. She frantically digs through her pockets, finds the receipt, and jabs it at me. “Here, I still have the bill of sale. We can go now. Or after dinner. They’re open till ten at least.” She grabs up the shredded garment bag, noisily rustling plastic as she tries to rewrap the dress. “I don’t know why your mother asked me to shop for you. She knows I haven’t her capacity for glamour.”
It’s one thing for Mum to boss and bully me, but there’s no way she can do this to Cecily.
“Please stop fluttering. It’s fine.” I take the dress again and hang it on a peg, letting the plastic fall. There has to be some way to fix this, to spare my style-challenged aunt from embarrassment or having to fight the city crowds, which terrify her. Come on, brain.
“Oh, Dani,” she says. “Don’t settle on my account.”
“It’s just very…grown up, which is kind of startling. Like you see me as so, well, mature.”
“Of course you are, so brave through such a difficult time.” As tears pool in her eyes, she briskly pats my arm and ducks away from my room.
The scent of beef bourguignon wafts through the door as she goes. For a split-second I’m tempted to follow her. But Dad’s counting on me to “honor” Mum, which for now means doing what I say I will — skip dinner to fix my raggedy nails.
I kick a path to my dresser and rifle through my toiletries for an emery board. As I dig deeper, something cool oozes onto my fingers. Oh, no. Hand sanitizer. One whiff and I’m back in Dad’s ICU room with powered-down machines, a gray stone man in a bed. So cold. So silent. So gone. I hurl the leaky bottle across the room, and it lands just short of the trash can, by Dad’s shoe.
I stare at the scuffed, brown oxford, size 12. My gaze drifts up to jeans legs, a corduroy blazer. It’s Dad, leaning on my desk like he used to every night.
He tilts his head and knits his pale eyebrows. “Rough day, my love?”
My love. His Rosebud. Dance-pants. Doodlebug.
Tears sting my eyes. My heart tugs me to go hug him and pour out all my troubles, while my brain screams Flatline! Corpse! Crematorium!
I wobble and sink onto my bed.
“Oh, Dad,” I croak. “What am I supposed to do without you? Mum and I…it’s hopeless. I can’t do anything right in her eyes. To her, I’m just a pathetic slob.”
“Not so, not so. Grace brags endlessly about your talent to anyone who’ll listen. She just frets about you, you know, developing a proper artist’s eye for composition, symmetry and all that. A bit of order does help, right?”
He smiles. “Very well, then, let’s get to it. Crank some tunes and we’ll have this place spiffed up in no time. Come on. It’ll be fun. I’ll do my Bowie impression.”
I snort at the thought of Dad waving his long, wiry arms to glam rock while shelving books and dusting. He always is happy to be an epic doofus if it makes boring chores entertaining.
Not is. Was. Shame flushes through me.
“This can’t be real.” I turn my hot face away and peel off my coat. Why am I talking to this hallucination or ghost or whatever it is? How could I possibly believe that Dad can go on having fun and playing peacemaker? It’s wishful thinking in the extreme.
When I turn back, he’s gone. Instead of a sweet breeze of relief, the loss hits like a fist.
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to conjure him. The lilt of his northern British accent. The sharp scent of darkroom chemicals clinging to his clothes. But it’s no good.
“I’m sorry I doubted you, Dad. Please come back. I promise I’ll listen.”
* * *
My breath fogs the cold glass as I perch on my bedroom windowsill and frantically dial Heather. Stories below me, yellow cabs race down Columbus toward midtown.
At Heather’s end, the Mexican Hat Dance is probably jangling in a pocket of that heinous gold lamé knapsack she loves so much. I hope she can hear it. Chances are her Georgia relatives dragged her to a monster truck rally or line dance or whatever it is they do for holiday family fun. She headed south for winter break with her big, noisy family the day we were all so sure Dad would pull through. He did wake up for a while. And Christmas was coming.
But real life isn’t a cheesy holiday flick with miracles that arrive right on time. Dad didn’t pull through, and now my best friend is far, far away when I need her most.
The line clicks. “Hey,” Heather says. “I thought we were gonna chat online at nine. You okay?”
“No, I — It’s…something really, really weird has happened. I saw…um —”
“Becca!” she suddenly shouts at her toddler sister, “get your grubby paws off my pastels and go back to bed! Hang on a sec, Dani, I need to move my art stuff before Becca scrawls a tornado in Times Square.” The phone crackles on fabric and I hear Heather calling for backup.
I sigh with relief. Bless you, Becca, you sticky-handed terror. That was a close one. What was I thinking, trying to tell Heather I saw Dad? She’ll think I’ve gone off the deep end. Or worse, she’ll let something slip to our youth pastor or even my mother.
I grab my sketch pad and attack it with a charcoal stick while I wait. My jagged strokes form Dad and me on the steps of the Metropolitan. It sucks not being able to talk about his ghost or spirit or whatever it is, but what can I do? Who could I possibly trust with something this bizarre?
The phone clanks again. “Sorry ‘bout that. It’s too doggone noisy for Becca to sleep well here, with my redneck relatives hollering all the time. I keep hoping there’s some mistake and Daddy was switched at birth. Oh, get this — loony Aunt Pearl is going to clown college.”
My laugh comes out slightly strangled. Rusty. Like I forgot how.
“You don’t sound good, Dani. If the airport weren’t three hours away, I’d be on a plane home in a heartbeat. How about we take your dad some flowers when I get back Monday?”
“Sorry, but I can’t. I’m leaving on Sunday for England.”
“You are? But why?”
“What’s that? Sounds like something Nazis would do.”
“It’s the, you know…the dirt part.”
“But I thought your dad was being buried in New York.” Her voice is thick and choked. “Aren’t we gonna get even a day of break to hang out?”
I blink back tears. “I wish. I really do. But the England burial is in Dad’s will. Sunday flights were cheapest.”
“You’ll come right on back though, won’t you?”
“No. Not for, um, two weeks.”
“Two weeks! Are ya kidding me? What about midterms?”
“Mum thinks she can cut a deal with the headmaster. I’m not sure what I’ll do if she can’t. I’ve got enough going on without worrying that my GPA is in jeopardy, too, right? I feel like I’m sinking into a swampy pit. I wish someone would throw me a vine.”
“I’ll try, Dani. Let me think. For your dad’s memorial service tomorrow, you need a plan, a way to bail if things get too ugly.”
“How bad can it get? I doubt we’ll have a pro-wrestling smack-down, like at your great-granddad’s funeral in Mobile. My family doesn’t really do ugly feelings, except for sulks and sarcasm.” I pick up my sketch pad again and layer on choppy cross-hatch shadows. “But if I get weepy and my mascara melts, I’ll…I don’t know. Hide in the bathroom?”
“Not very original, but it’ll do. Listen, you need someone there for you who won’t be a mess themselves.”
“Like who? Everyone I know left town for the holidays.”
“That can’t be true. But don’t you worry about it, all right? I got unlimited long distance and I won’t rest till I find someone.”
“Trust me, I wouldn’t let you be alone at a time like this.”
Trust her. I look at my desk, where Dad was standing just minutes ago. Trust her, my only friend who came to the hospital, ate bad cafeteria meals with me, typed my tear-stained homework.
“Heather, I need to tell you something a little freaky.” I take a deep breath. Trust her. Trust her. “I just saw my dad. And he talked to me.”
She gasps, and then the line’s silent.
“You — You think your dad is…haunting you?”
“I don’t know exactly.” I go to my desk and touch the spot Dad had leaned against. “I was trying not to fight with Mum and he was suddenly there, kind of…helping me cope with her. Later he offered to help me clean my room. He seemed so real, down to the wrinkles around his eyes.”
“I know you miss him a lot, but what you saw…might not be quite what you think.”
“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence. You think I’m cavorting with evil spirits, huh?”
“That’s not what I meant.” She blows out a slow breath. “You’ve got me worried. Please don’t do anything extreme — like climb in a casket or something. You’re stressed out and hurting and your mind can play tricks on you.”
“Climb in a casket? As if. You are so morbid. Anyway, there is no casket. Dad was cremated to travel lighter. I’d need to be the size of a Barbie doll to fit in his urn.”
“Dani, you better talk to somebody who’s there in person. Like now. I know you and your mom aren’t exactly tight. But your dad’s parents are there, aren’t they?”
“Yeah. His big sister, too.”
“Talk to them, okay? Promise?”
“Fine. Whatever. See you in a few weeks.”
I plunk the phone on my jagged sketch of Dad and me. My face looks half-melted, like Quasimodo or pottery that collapsed in the kiln. Heather’s right. I’m losing my freaking mind. And now my inky fingertips have a fresh coat of charcoal. Great. I can’t do anything without making a mess.
I tiptoe to the bathroom, hoping Mum doesn’t stop me for a surprise inspection. I scrub my hands with wet wipes, pumice soap, then nail polish remover. A dozen cotton balls later, my fingers still have a faint blue tinge, like I’m oxygen-deprived. I ought to put on Goth-black polish to complete the look. Better yet, I could stick feathers in my hair and change my name to Dances-with-Ghosts. It’d be about as sane as keeping my promise to Heather.
I can’t go marching into the dining room and say, “Great news! Dad’s back. He just stopped by for a chat.” I can picture how swimmingly that’d go down with my family. Aunt Cecily would weep into her knitting, while Dad’s mother, Grandma Deane, would sit pale and stricken in her ivory twinset, teacup rattling in her hands. Dad’s father, the Reverend Elliott Deane, would either conk me with a crucifix like I’m possessed or give me the senile church lady treatment — a thoughtful frown, reassuring pat, and vague inspirational quote of the day. Mum would flash one of her apologetic “teenagers are such a trial” smiles, and say nothing. Not like she’d get a word in edgewise with Poppa Tilman grousing about her “un-daughterly” hospitality, “uppity” cooking, “plain-Jane” décor.
Well, I didn’t promise I’d talk about the ghost, only that I’d talk. I think I can manage to get “More tea anyone?” to come out of my mouth.
I towel off each knuckle and nail, chanting a prayer: Lord God. Have mercy. On me.
My heart rate slows. I can do this.
I shut off the light and slowly pad down the hall. Voices grow clearer as I near the dining room. Mum is blathering on about the real estate market in our Upper West Side neighborhood.
Then Grandma asks, “You’ve discussed this with Dani, haven’t you?”
I freeze. Discussed what?