This path—writing—it’s not linear. Sometimes the way forward is shrouded in mist. Sometimes a fork appears out of nowhere. And, sometimes, I follow the wrong trail.
It would be nice if I realized the wrongness of the trail right away. I’m not that lucky.
And so, I recently tossed most of a book.
I won’t go into the angst that went into that decision or the number of days I spent looking for something to salvage. In the end, the wrong path is the wrong path.
Today, I thought I’d share with you what the wrong path (in all its unedited glory) looks like…
Maybe Grace liked the sunny yellow hats and coats. Maybe she liked the symmetry of twelve little girls in two straight lines. Maybe she related to a distant, doting father. For whatever reason, my daughter’s favorite book, since the time she was old enough to turn the pages, was Madeline.
I liked Miss Clavel, the woman tasked with the thankless job of keeping order.
I was definitely channeling Miss Clavel when I opened my eyes in the darkness. An uneasy feeling had pulled me from a sound sleep. Something was not right!
My feet were on the carpet and I was halfway across the bedroom before I remembered Grace was spending the night with her friend, Peggy.
I’d awakened Max and he was yawning.
“Should I call?”
“I think I should call.”
Max settled his head back onto his paws. He had no opinion.
I glanced back at the clock radio on my bedside table. The numbers glowed a soft yellow.
I dithered. It was too late—or too early—to call. I was being ridiculous.
Something was not right.
I picked up the receiver and dialed.
“Hello.” Blythe was talking but she was at least half-asleep—at least her voice was.
“Blythe, it’s Ellison Russell. I am sorry to call at this hour, but I have the most horrible feeling something has happened. Are the girls all right?”
“How would I know?” Blythe sounded noticeably more awake.
“They’re at your house.”
“No.” She was fully awake now. “They’re at yours.”
My stomach lurched. “They went to a concert and Grace assured me they’d be back at your house by half past twelve.”
“They went to a movie and are spending the night with you.”
My stomach tied itself in a complicated, painful knot. “I’ll call you back.”
I dropped the phone in the cradle and flew down the hall to Grace’s room—Grace’s empty room. With Max at my heels, I descended the back stairs, raced to the family room, and flipped on the lights.
Grace wasn’t there either. A choking fear took hold of my throat, cutting off the supply of air to my lungs.
I lunged for the phone. “Hello.”
“Mrs. Russell?” asked a stranger’s voice.
“Yes,” I croaked. “This is she.”
“My name is Mary Jansen. I’m calling from St. Mark’s.”
The hospital. My knees crumpled and I slid to the floor. “What’s happened?”
“You need to come.”
“What’s happened? Is Grace all right?”
I waited. I didn’t breathe. I didn’t move. I prayed with every cell in my body. Please, let her be all right.
“She’s fine but we had to give her a sedative.”
“She was hysterical.”
Grace didn’t get hysterical. “Why?”
“No. Her friend, Debbie. She found her—”
She found her? I’d found enough dead bodies to know what came next. “I’m on my way.”
I hung up. I should have asked what happened to Debbie. I should have called Blythe. I should have checked on Peggy. But panic pushed those thoughts from my mind until I was in the car, speeding down dark streets toward the hospital.
I parked in the Emergency Room lot and exploded through the doors.
The waiting room was dotted with people who were so sick they’d ventured out at two in the morning. I felt their pained gazes settle on me as I ran to the check-in desk. “I’m here about my daughter, Grace Russell. Where is she?”
A woman with tired eyes looked up from some paperwork. “If you’ll have a seat, I’ll check with doctor.”
There was no way I could quietly wait. Not for so much as a second. I had to see Grace, whole and unhurt, right away. “I can’t wait.”
She peered over the top of her glasses at the half-full waiting room. “It won’t be long.”
I didn’t know the woman sitting behind the desk. She didn’t know me. It was time for the big guns.
“My mother is Frances Walford, she’s the chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees—”
The poor woman paled.
“I don’t want to call her—” that was the understatement of the decade “—but I will. I need to see my daughter. This instant.”
The woman stared at me as if she couldn’t quite believe Frances Walford’s daughter would fly into the hospital in the middle of the night, her hair an unholy mess, her limbs covered in paint-splattered blue jeans and a wrinkled shirt. Mother was always perfectly turned out.
The woman stared an instant too long.
I reached for the phone. “Nine for an outside line?”
That got her moving. “This way, Mrs. Russell.”
Ignoring the resentful gazes of those still waiting, I followed her into the Emergency Room.
She led me past bustling nurses and slow-moving doctors to a waxed curtain the color of old oatmeal. A uniformed police officer pushed out of a chair positioned next to it.
A police officer? The blood raced away from my head in a giant whoosh and remaining upright was suddenly a challenge. “What happened?”
“You’re Mrs. Russell?” he asked.
“Yes. What happened to my daughter?” I reached for the curtain.
He reached too. “If we could talk a moment—”
“After I see Grace.” I yanked back the curtain.
Grace lay on the hospital bed with a blanket drawn up to her chin. Her eyes were closed and she snored softly. I breathed my first real breath since I’d called Blythe. Grace was all right. Unharmed. Alive. And I was going to kill her.
Now I turned to the police officer. “What is going on?”
He shifted his weight and frowned. “Your daughter and a few of her friends snuck into a bar.”
“A bar?” I was definitely going to kill her.
“Have you heard of Dirty Sally’s?”
Did I look like the kind of woman who frequented a place called Dirty Sally’s? I smoothed my messy hair. “No.”
“The girls say they went to listen to a band.”
Grace was as good as dead. And grounded. And she was never, ever spending the night at a friend’s house again. She’d be putting her dead, grounded-for-life head on her own pillow every night until she went to college. “How did they get from the bar to the hospital?”
“One of the girls your daughter was with got herself into some trouble.”
“Debbie Clayton.” It figured. Of all Grace’s friends, Debbie was the flightiest. “Is she all right?”
“Your daughter found her in the alley behind the bar.” The expression on his face was as serious as the punishments I planned for Grace.
Found her? I tightened my hands into fists. “What happened to Debbie?”
“The doctors are with her now.”
At least she wasn’t dead. I sank onto an empty chair. “What happened?”
A ruddy hue stained his cheeks. “Your daughter says Miss Clayton was raped.”
She is a Kansas City native who grew up on a steady diet of Agatha Christie. She spends her spare time whipping up gourmet meals for her family, working out at the gym and finding new ways to keep her house spotlessly clean--and she's got an active imagination. Truth is--she's an expert at calling for take-out, she grumbles about walking the dog and the dust bunnies under the bed have grown into dust lions.