Authors: Denise Grover Swank
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #A Rose Gardner Mystery Book One
TWENTY-EIGHT AND A HALF WISHES
DENISE GROVER SWANK
Books by Denise Grover Swank:
Rose Gardner Mysteries
(Humorous southern mysteries)
TWENTY-EIGHT AND A HALF WISHES
TWENTY-NINE AND A HALF REASONS (June 2012)
The Chosen Series
(Paranormal thriller/romance/urban fantasy)
CHOSEN (The Chosen #1)
HUNTED (The Chosen #2)
UNTITLED (The Chosen #4) (January 2013)
On the Otherside Series
(Young adult science fiction/romance)
THERE (November 2012)
Copyright 2011 by Denise Grover Swank
Cover art and design by Janet Holmes
Copy Editing by Jim Thomsen
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used factiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
In memory of Mrs. Connie Davis my high school English teacher who always expected more from me.
And to Trace, Ross, Julia, Jenna, Ryan and
Emma— you were always my wishes
It all started when I saw myself dead.
Rain hung heavy in the air that Friday afternoon. The air conditioning of the old municipal building didn’t know how to handle it, making the office especially chilly. I’d just returned from lunch and grabbed my worn red sweater out of my drawer as I sat down at my workstation. The fluorescent lights flickered overhead, casting a sick gray pallor over the room.
I sucked in a breath to prepare myself for the next few hours. All that rain was bound to ruin a lot of Memorial Day Weekend plans, making the DMV customers even crabbier than their usual.
“Number fifty-three,” I called out over the counter as I turned on my computer screen.
A scruffy man in his mid-thirties approached and plopped his paperwork on the chest-high counter in a huff.
“I need to renew my plates,” he said. Irritation made his voice scratchy.
I looked him over as I tugged the paperwork down. Gray-tinged stubble covered his face, a sharp contrast to his shaggy dark brown hair. His light brown eyes held a menacing glare. I chided myself for my foolishness. Everyone has menacing eyes at the DMV on a Friday afternoon, even the sweetest of grandmas.
“Let’s have a look at your paperwork,” I said as I glanced at the neatly stacked forms. “Mr. Crocker.”
I pulled the clip off the stack and examined the documents. He had all his required papers: the license renewal form and his personal property tax receipt, but his proof of insurance was expired. I glanced up with great reluctance. Mr. Crocker had to have been in the reception area at least thirty minutes and he had the look of a man tired of waiting. He gripped his keys in his hand, like he could squeeze a glass of juice right out of them. His eyes jumped around the room as he studied all the DMV employees behind the counter, landing on one person and moving onto the next.
Just as I was about to explain the situation, I felt the all-too-familiar tingle of a vision coming on.
Oh, crappy doodles
Like a photograph in my mind, I saw me. Deader than a doornail.
I stared at Mr. Crocker and gasped, my eyes so big I felt them drying out. My jaw dropped so far I was amazed it didn’t hit the counter. Just as the words “You’re going to kill me” began tumbling out, a black fuzziness flooded my brain.
The next thing I knew, a buzz swept through the DMV and it wasn’t from a swarm of bees. The DMV staff and customers had crowded around me.
I opened my eyes. My forehead throbbed where it must have smacked the Formica.
“Rose Gardner, what in heaven’s name happened to you?” The voice of Betty, my boss, boomed in my ear. I knew I must have fainted because one minute I sat gawking at the man who was planning to murder me and the next I was practically making out with my workspace. Not that I ever made out. I was a good girl, after all—twenty-four years old and I’d never even been kissed.
Sitting up, I raised my hand to my head and lightly probed the growing knot with my fingertips. “I don’t know…” I mumbled, squinting from the light. Fear slithered in my gut as I peered over the counter to see if Mr. Crocker was still there. He stood to the side, pushed out of the way by a couple of elderly women eager for what had to be the best gossip in Henryetta all week. He eyed me warily, and my heart raced as I wondered how much I said before I passed out.
Now, I’d had a multitude of visions all my life. I was gifted, or cursed—depending on who you asked—with
. My grandma on my father’s side had it. People respected her and considered her the Oracle of Lafayette County, Arkansas.
But me? I was just a freak.
Most of the time I paid it no mind. I kept to myself and everyone in my town of Henryetta liked it that way. While my grandma saw helpful information such as droughts and locust infestations, I was cursed with seeing useless and mundane things like Mrs. White’s toilet overflow or the ear infection in Jenny Baxter’s baby. None of that would be so bad if I kept what I saw to myself, but my visions didn't work that way. Without any volition of my own, whatever I saw just blurted right out of my mouth. Most of the people who knew me thought I was a snoop or a gossip, the only rational explanation to reason away my knowledge. But Momma had another opinion. She declared me demon-possessed.
But in my twenty-four years, I’d never had a vision about me, so seeing myself dead was quite the shock. I scrunched my eyes, trying to remember what I’d seen. I was leaning back on Momma’s sofa. Blood spread out behind my head, blending with the pink cabbage roses and seeping into the ivory background. My open eyes had a dull, glazed stare. All I could think was how angry Momma was going to be about all that blood on her favorite sofa. I didn’t think there was enough hydrogen peroxide in the entire state of Arkansas to get out that stain.
My eyes flew open. A crowd of people had gathered around, watching to see if I’d pass out again. After I considered Momma’s impending outrage, it was a definite possibility.
“I’m…I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.” I said between gasps of air. My eyes glanced to Mr. Crocker, who crept backward with a look of annoyance.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” said Suzanne, who worked at the counter next to mine. “She was processing that license renewal and the next thing I know she mumbled ‘You’re’ and then her head fell forward and whacked the counter.” Suzanne’s favorite obsession was herself so it amazed me that she had caught that much. But then again, she didn’t much like me so my guess was that she welcomed the opportunity to gather more ammunition. She leaned back in her chair, arms crossed in front of the cleavage bursting out of her low-cut blouse. She tilted her head and her mouth lifted into a mocking half-smile.
“I just felt a little dizzy, that’s all. I’ll be fine.” I tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear with a shaky hand.
“Oh, no. No way. You might think you’ll be fine, but you just fainted. You sit there for a minute and then you’re goin’ home.” Betty’s voice was as large as her oversized body. Every person in the room heard her proclamation.
“Seriously?” Suzanne asked, sounding like a toddler on the verge of a fit. “I asked you four times already if I could leave early to get a head start on my weekend and you said no. All Freaky Rose has to do is beat her head on her desk and she gets to go? That hardly seems fair.”
Betty put her hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes. “Suzanne,” she drew her name out slowly as if she were talking to a small child. “Rose never calls in sick and hardly ever takes a day off. You, on the other hand, call in all the time and have used all your vacation days. But next time you wanna leave early, I’ll let you go. As long as you beat your head on your desk first.”
“Yeah, well, the only reason she never takes time off is because she doesn’t have a life.” Suzanne eyed me as if I were a cockroach about to scurry across the floor.
Betty scowled then surveyed the room, taking in the gawkers lined up against the counter. “All right, show’s over, folks. Y’all get back in your seat unless your number’s been called.”
The crowd broke up, people grumbling and whispering. No sane person balked at Betty’s orders, not even the fuming Suzanne. Her eyes shot flaming arrows of hate toward me as she fluffed her bleached blonde hair.
Suzanne leaned toward me and hissed. “Don’t think I’m not on to you, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes.”
I turned toward her in surprise. I had no idea what she meant. But then again, I suspected she didn’t either. My clammy palm rested on Mr. Crocker’s paperwork, reminding me I hadn’t finished processing it. But as my head swiveled around and searched the room, I saw he was gone.
I couldn’t understand that. Why would he just abandon his personal papers?
I sat at my desk trying to slow my galloping heart and glanced down at the paperwork. His first name was Daniel and he lived on Highway 82. I tried to memorize the address, knowing that if I wrote it down, Suzanne would catch me and make a big deal about it. I told myself I was crazy, or paranoid. Or both. My demon possession had branched out into new areas.
I grabbed my purse and headed out. I pushed open the heavy metal door, searching for Mr. Crocker before I entered the humid parking lot. Nothing. I shook my head at my over-active imagination.
. My visions didn’t always come true and this one seemed too preposterous to consider. The logical explanation to his leaving was that I freaked him out. Just like I freaked out everyone else in Henryetta.
Nevertheless, when I reached my car, I looked around for signs of someone preparing to jump out and grab me. Where should I go? If I went home, Momma would ask questions. I’d rather give Suzanne’s hammer-toed feet a pedicure than face that. I turned left, toward the edge of town. A visit to my sister sounded like a good idea.
Violet lived in a new neighborhood on the outskirts of town, still in the city limits but hanging on the edge like it couldn’t make up its mind. She lived in a new house, my older sister’s dream come true. She hated the one we grew up in, the old and worn-out home I still shared with our Momma. It only needed a little tender loving care, but Momma insisted it was a waste of time and money to paint and add fresh curtains. Not to mention that in her eyes, it was greedy. Momma tried to avoid the seven deadly sins like they were Satan himself.
Violet lived in a cookie-cutter replica of every other home on her street. The houses were only a couple of years old, each one in various pastel shades. Most of the yards were bare of landscaping, with just an occasional tiny tree here and there. But Violet took great pride in her home, and flowerbeds full of red begonias lined the walk from the driveway to the front door and the backyard was bursting with more. Violet loved flowers.
I parked my old Chevy Nova in the driveway. It was Daddy’s old car. It became mine after he died during my freshman year in college, when Momma made me drop out of school to take care of her. The car was old, but well maintained. Not that it mattered. I didn't drive it much. I had nowhere to go. Or, more accurately, Momma said I had nowhere to go.
My knuckles rapped the metal door. I didn't want to ring the doorbell for fear I’d wake up my niece and nephew from their naps. The door swung open, and the shock of my unexpected visit was written on Violet’s face.
“Rose! What on earth are you doin’ here at this time of day?” She gripped the edge of the door with one hand and held a dishtowel in the other. She looked like one of those greeting cards of women from the fifties, only those were spoofs and Violet was the real thing.
Not that I was making fun of her. Violet was everything I longed to be. Pretty. Married. A mother.
“I’m sorry to barge in on you, Violet,” I said with a sigh, “but I wasn’t sure where else to go.”
Violet’s eyes widened with concern and she moved out of the entrance. “Of course. Come on in.” She led the way to the small kitchen where the mouth-watering smell of chocolate chip cookies greeted me. A mixing bowl sat on her tiny kitchen island, along with a cooling rack covered in a fresh batch of cookies.
I perched on a bar stool in front of the island and snatched a cookie so fresh that it folded over as I lifted it from the rack.
“Want some sweet tea?”
“Mmmhmm.” I mumbled through a mouth full of cookie.
Violet poured us both a glass and sat on a stool. She sipped her tea as she watched me over the top of her cup, waiting. I loved that about Violet. While Momma was always quick to snap and drag every piece of information out of me, Violet was content to wait.