Chapter 3: Answers From the Dead

Note:  This is a  preview of the new mystery novel by Chris Donner,  featuring grief counselor Alice Anne McDonnell in a cozy mystery of suicide, murder and banking.

In case you missed it, read chapter 1 first.

Want to know what happens next?  A new chapter will be posted every Sunday.  Sign up for email notifications in the upper left part of this page so that you don’t miss out!


Chapter 3:  Answers From the Dead

Alice Anne McDonnell sat at her kitchen table.  Breakfast had been cleared and the dishes washed.  She liked order.  Just a little order.  She wasn’t obsessed with order, but a little made for a simple life.

She would be fifty years old tomorrow.  She’d celebrate it like she had the last ten birthdays, without fanfare or notice of anything special.  Birthdays had ceased to have any meaning.  It would be just another day.  Or so she thought.

She sat with her herbal tea and let her mind wander a little before pulling out the little composition book she had used in the Pudding River Java Joint  yesterday.  What a funny little thing it looked.  A school note book for one of the fairies her grandmother used to claim lived in the hollows of trees.

She shook herself out of her revere.  She thought about what her life, and was happy about most of it.  She never did marry or have children, but she was definitely of the grandmother age.  She could gush over a newborn with the best of them and was known to play a compelling game of hide and seek with restaurant menus.  Alice Anne would have been a prime candidate to be a foster grandmother.  She’s be good at spoiling them and giving them back.

When she was a teenager she had other plans for her life, although they had faded so long ago that she couldn’t remember them. But then came the turning point.  She was sixteen when her father was murdered.  Her incredible, loving, soft, talented father.  Their lives had gone into a tailspin after that.  Alice Anne’s mother had died by suicide four months after that.  Suddenly Alice Anne was left alone in the world, an orphan.  Being a native of Toronto, she wouldn’t reach the age of legal majority until she was eighteen, so she was shipped off to live with her mother’s brother in Portland, Oregon.

Uncle Ned made it clear to her that he didn’t have kids for a reason, and she wasn’t all that welcome.  He treated her like a renter, providing her neither the comfort nor the guidance that she so desperately needed at that time in her life.  So there she was, a continent away from all of her friends, her school, the life she knew, devoid of love and caring, living in a new country all alone.  Her grief had grown to include the emptiness of all those losses in her life.  She went into a deep and profound grief.

Alice Anne didn’t want to think about what had happened next, the years of drugs and anger.  So much self abuse. She can’t believe she had been that person.  Looking back on it with the wisdom of thirty years of sanity made it quite understandable, but those ten years after the deaths of her parents were the hardest years of her life.  Whatever person she was going to become was killed the moment the bullet tore into her father’s brain.  Whatever life and creativity were left in her soul were destroyed that fateful day when she had come home from school to find her mother’s lifeless body slumped over the kitchen table.  There was no note of explanation or goodbye, just the two empty vials of insulin and the empty bottle of pills. Her mother had intended that no one would be able to revive her.  Her exit was final, relentless, determined.

She had raged and fought against the world, life, god and everything she could find as an outlet for her anger.  For ten long years she had been bent on self destruction. Ten years filled with pills and alcohol.  Two attempted suicides, half-hearted attempts designed more for attention than for effect.  She had tried to get inside her mother’s mind, but couldn’t.  Finally the fires inside her head, the volcanoes of anger that had been driving her started to abate.  Times does heal.  Never quickly.  But it does heal.

Alice Anne had been named for her mother’s mother, Alice, and great grandmother, Anne.  Both women had been extraordinarily gifted.  Talented, creative women with minds that reached far beyond their time and position in life.  A man’s mind, they used to call it, meaning a woman who could think, reason and deduce with the dispassionate mind of the sterner sex.  It was the spirit of Nanna Anne who had saved Alice Anne from self immolation.  Nanna Anne had come to her great granddaughter in a vision late one night.  She had spoken to her sternly at first, in other to gain her attention, but then began to speak gently, soothing the old wounds, healing the scars, giving her some of the answers she had so desperately needed.  Answers that could only have come from someone who was seeing with the vision of the eternal.

The women in Alice Anne’s life had come from the Scottish highlands, a place of magic and mystery.  They were all blessed or cursed, depending on your experience, with a dara sealladh, the gift of second sight.  Legend has it that those with the second sight could foretell death.  It was never spoken of openly in the family, but there were many whispered conversations between mother and daughter over the years.  Alice Anne had learned that her Nanna Anne had embraced her gift, calling it the biggest blessing ever because it opened the door to another dimension to her.  She developed her skills instead of denying them and keeping them boxed up in some deep hole of the heart.  Nanna Anne had been able to extend her vision and see things happening far beyond their village, even beyond the grave.  She could see and talk to the dead, it was said.

Alice Anne had inherited much of the same gift, although she never practiced it.  She had only had one strong, clear vision, and that had happened the morning of her father’s death.  She wished that she had told him, had made him listen to her.  Could she have prevented his murder?  Would he still be alive today? Was it all her fault?  She had never been able to forgive herself.

She thought about her mother’s suicide.  Alice Anne had never talked about the curse with her mother.  She had only talked about it with Nanna Alice.      Alice Anne had gotten the strong impression from her grandmother that her mother either didn’t believe in the second sight, or didn’t want to believe.  Regardless, she kept her silence with her mother.  Now Alice Anne wondered if her mother had foreseen her father’s death and chosen not to tell him.  Could she have carried the same burden of guilt as Alice Anne did all these years?  Is that the story behind her suicide?  She would never know now.

Sighing deeply, Alice Anne decided that there was only one thing left for her to do. She would have a conversation with her Nanna Anne.  She would speak with the dead.

Alice Anne went upstairs to her bedroom.  She hadn’t saved very many things from her childhood home, but she did save her mother’s hope chest.  She had saved some of the family records there, including what few mementos survived of her grandmother and great grandmother.

Alice Anne dug into the cedar chest and pulled out the envelope of materials about her Nanna Anne.  She gazed at a similar envelope with her mother’s name on it, thought about opening it but decided to let it rest in peace.  Her business today would be with the dead who liked to commune with the living.

Alice Anne settled herself in her favorite chair in her office, a slightly oversized wing back chair that was both comfortable and comforting, put the envelope, a writing pad, pen and glass of water on the small end table beside her.  The lights were turned down low.  The night was chilly and damp, with the autumn rain that substituted for winter in this part of the world.  She was grateful for the fireplace on a night like tonight.

She wasn’t too sure of how to go about this.  She’s never attempted anything of this sort before.  She had resisted playing with the Ouija board when she was young.  Her friends thought it was all the rage, but Alice Anne knew better than to play with powers like that.  She knew that the Ouija board could call forth powerful emotions from other spirits and treated it with respect.  But how could she talk with the dead?  She couldn’t just ring them up and wait until they answered.  She decided that she’s take a leaf out of Gestalt therapy and just pretend her great grandmother was sitting in the chair opposite her.  They’d just have a nice, friendly chat.

She put an old photograph of her great grandmother on the chair opposite her.  She quietly slowed her breathing down, relaxed, and went into a meditative state of calmness.  She tried to open her mind, to empty it of all the many things on her to do list.

The room was silent except for the tick tick tick of the grandfather clock in the hallway.  A comforting sound.  Like a heartbeat from someone you loved.  Steady, regular, consistent.  She relaxed more deeply, letting her worries and frustrations fall away from her.  It was a pleasant feeling, almost heady.  She wondered why she didn’t do this more often.  It felt so good.  Why is it that we always practice the unpleasant things in life but never the pleasant ones, she wondered.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Her clock looked old but its movements were modern quartz, highly regulated and precise.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Nanna Anne”, she whispered out loud.  Her voice jarred the silence of the night. She let the echo die away before she continued.  “Nanna Anne, I need your advice.  I need someone to talk to, someone who will understand, and I think you are the one.  Nanna Alice told me that you used to talk with the dead ones, the ones who have passed over, so I know you can hear me.  I know you know who I am.”

She waited, thinking of what she wanted to say next.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

“I’m unsettled.  Confused.  Not sure of what to do next.  My life has become too predictable, too…. ”  She  struggled to find the correct words.  “It’s too boring.  It’s a good life, but it isn’t the life I should be living.  I know that.  I can feel that there is more for me.  But I don’t know what to do about it.”

She thought that if her father were still alive that this would be a conversation she would have had with him.  She loved his insight and guidance.  A wave of nostalgia swept over her, threatening to unleash a deluge of tears.  Tears long overdue.

She knew she should let them come, that tears were the best catharsis, but she held them back.   She wasn’t here to mourn.  She was here to take her life in a new direction, to find answers.

“Nanna, I have shut myself down for too many years.  I have heard stories of your energy and zest for living.  Please explain to me, show me how you did it.  I want to live again, to feel again.  I want to be whole.  Please help me.”

Her grandfather clock roared into life, chiming the hour.  Startled, she looked at her watch. 11:11.  That can’t be right.  The clock shouldn’t be chiming.  She looked at her wall clock and it agreed with her wrist watch.  She found this to be a little disconcerting.  Now out of her peaceful place, she looked at the picture of her great grandmother again and felt a little silly.  She put the picture back in its manila envelope.  “Time to get some sleep”, she told herself.  “Enough of this silliness.  You can’t talk to the dead.”  She reached over to pick up the water glass to return it to the kitchen and noticed the little notepad she had placed on the end table.  Written on it were the numbers 11 11.  Eleven eleven.  Just like her clock.  She didn’t remember writing them, but there they were.

The writing spooked her.  It looked like her writing but four ones on a paper could look like anyone’s writing, she thought.  She didn’t remember picking up the pen and writing on the paper.  How bizarre!

She decided there was a reason that she had never attempted this before.  It wasn’t natural.  In fact, it was downright spooky.  She wasn’t going to meddle in this any more.

Turning off the light, she went up to bed and fell into a restless night’s sleep.

The sun was shining brightly when Alice Anne awoke the next morning.  Her head took a few moments to register where she was.  The room looked familiar.  Yes, this was her bedroom.  Sunshine.  October?  Sunshine in November in the morning?  That was quite strange.  This is western Oregon, after all.  Nine months of rain in this temperate rain forest meant lots of overcast mornings.

She jolted awake, realizing that it must be quite late.  She had a client at 9:00.  She rushed through her morning routine, wolfed down her breakfast, grabbed a second cup of tea and made it into her office with minutes to spare. Thank goodness the morning commute only involved walking down the hall.

She barely had time to recall the case file for her first client of the day before her arrival.  Soon she was deep into conversation with the young widow and her nine year old daughter.  The father had been killed in a car accident, rammed by a drunk driver.  The mother wasn’t handling her own grief too well and it showed in the daughter’s performance at school. The principal had called to report another troubling incident, this one involving scissors and the hair of the girl sitting in front of little Mary.  Alice Anne let the details drift over her.  The story was a familiar one after twenty years of practice.  She knew that the best therapy would be to let the mother talk and then to try to see the girl alone so that she could work on the child’s grief without the burden of her mother’s issues.

After the client left, Alice Anne went about her normal business.  She opened the mail, read a request for her to present a paper at the annual suicide symposium.  She’d deal with that later.  Her work on suicidology was getting to be fairly well known.  A bill from the electric company, along with a notice of a rate hike, not shocking in this economy.  She was busy catching up on her case notes from the last three days, something she normally does but had put off while she was in her funk.

The grandfather clock boomed to life, startling Alice Anne.  She glanced at her wrist watch.  11:11.  How did it get to be so late already?  Wait.  11:11.  She’d have to get that clock looked it.  It was running fast.  Or slow.  She couldn’t decide which.  But it was definitely wrong to be chiming at eleven minutes after the hour.  She couldn’t remember it going on at 10:11, though, and she would have remembered if it had interrupted a session.  How very odd.

Then the details of last night’s attempted communication with Nanna Anne came back to her.  11:11 then, too.  Is this some kind of a message?

Alice Anne didn’t believe in ghosts, at least not in the way people normally mean it.  She didn’t believe that people got stuck halfway in and out of this life and roamed around until they could figure out how to get to heaven.  Nor was she superstitious, although given her Highlands Scots roots she would have every reason to be. She had somehow managed to blend science with all of her cultural biases.

She had only been in Pudding River for five years, having moved out of Portland when it got a bit too noisy and crowded for her.  She had fallen in love with her compact Victorian house on first sight.  It had great vibes for her, and that was important.  She might have shut down her second sight years ago, but she was still acutely sensitive of the energy in a space.  This house had great energy.

Her grandfather clock had been with her for a long, long time.  It was over a hundred years old, having been handed down in the family.  It had come over from Scotland with her mother’s kin and was the only thing of her parents that she had kept after the tragedy.  Some years ago a client of hers offered to replace its workings with a modern quartz movement when she complained that the original works would no longer keep accurate time.  He had told her that he could retool the original parts or replace them.  She had opted for the modern works as long as he could keep the face of the clock intact.  To Alice Anne, it was a nice pairing of old and new, and a symbol of the work she did with bereaved people.  You still retain those memories of your loved one, but you live with a whole new workings to your world.

As she was pondering the erratic behavior of her clock, the telephone rang.

“This is Alice Anne McDonnell”, she spoke into the phone.  A female voice came back at her.  Alice Anne sized up the voice.

“I would like to come see you, please.”

“Certainly.  May I ask who is speaking?”

“My name is Jennifer”.

“Jennifer, I have a few openings next week.  Were you referred by one of my clients?”

“No, I just remember reading the article in the paper about your work with suicides.”

Alice Anne added the word “suicide” beside Jennifer’s name on the intake form.

“Well, Jennifer, I normally like to have you come in for a session so that we can get to know each other.  Then, if you are comfortable with me, we can book other sessions.  We can talk a little now, if you are comfortable talking over the phone.  If not, we can wait until you come in.  The choice is entirely up to you.”

She waited in the silence.  Years of practice had taught her that people in the fog of grief can take time to process anything said to them.  They had to feel like they had control of at least this little bit of their world, since the rest of the time they were living in swirling chaos.

The voice stuttered a bit, then the woman seemed to make up her mind.

“I don’t…. I’m not sure… I don’t want to talk over the phone.  I prefer coming in to your office.”

“That’s perfectly fine.  Shall we make an appointment?  What day next week works best for you?”

“No, it has to be sooner than that.  I need to talk to you today.  It’s very important.  It has to be today.”

The urgency in the woman’s voice had an underlying note of panic.  It was setting off warning bells in Alice Anne’s mind.  This wouldn’t be the first time that someone who was thinking of committing suicide had called her instead of a suicide hot line.  The initial mention of suicide, coupled with the  sound of the woman’s voice, made Alice Anne wonder if the woman was intending to die instead of wanting to talk about someone who had died.

Alice Anne started in on her suicide checklist.

“Jennifer, I hear you want an appointment for today instead of next week.  Can you tell me about why you feel such a sense of urgency?”

Silence.  Alice Anne counted the ticks from the clock, waiting, not wanting to break the tenuous connection she had with this woman.

“It’s complicated”, the woman said, “and I don’t want to talk about it over the phone.  Please can you fit me in today?  If you can’t I don’t know what else I can do.  I’m so confused.”

The rising note of panic in her voice was worrisome.

“Jennifer, are you safe?  Is there someone you can be with right now?”

“What?  Yes.  Yes, I’m safe but there is no one that I can be with now.  That is the problem.  Please, can I see you today?”

Alice Anne made the appointment for 2:00 that afternoon, hoping that the woman would be safe and would come to the office.  It’s easy for new clients to have buyer’s remorse and not show up.

The clock chimed again as Alice hung up the phone.  Twelve noon, and not a minute off the hour mark.  It seems her clock was back to running on time.  Alice shrugged and headed off to a light lunch at the Pudding River Java Joint, putting the thought of suicidal women out of her head for the moment.


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  1. Cari Dawson says:

    It’s keeping my interest, Chris. And, that’s not easy. Thank you. Looking forward to the next chapter!

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