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Molly Masters Series

Death Comes eCalling

Death Comes eCalling

Chapter 1

Woe Does My Garden Grow

They were dead. All of my mother's perennials. Gone. So were the annuals I'd planted just last week. They had been nibbled to dirt level by the rabbits, leaving only the plastic identifiers as miniature tombstones.

Frustrated, I scanned the neighborhood's manicured lawns and picturesque flowerbeds as I continued down the driveway to the mailbox. How long would it take my neighbors to catch on if I were to "plant" silk flowers?

I grabbed a handful of mail and sorted through it as I wandered back toward the house. Amid the advertisements and bills was a crisp parchment envelope addressed to Miss Molly Peterson. I hadn't called myself a Miss nor a Peterson for more than ten years. Though I didn't recognize the bold, looping handwriting in black ink, I did recognize its implement: a fountain pen.

Oh my God. It's her. I've only been in town for three weeks. Who told her I was back?

I ripped open the envelope and read:

Dear Molly,
    You have no doubt grown wiser during the many years that have transpired since you graduated from Carlton Central. Perhaps, if you have been lucky, you have gained enough wisdom to balance your wit. If so, you have learned that one can only conquer one's demons face to face, not by outrunning them.
    I hope, my dear, that you no longer consider me a demon. In any case, rest assured that I am not as fleet of foot as I once was. Please contact me as soon as possible. It is of the utmost importance. We have much to discuss, and I have precious little time. Yours truly,
Mrs. Kravett (Phoebe)

Oh, Mrs. Kravett, you were never my demon. Even seventeen years ago, I realized that much. You just held up the mirror.

But what did she mean by "precious little time?" Was she ill? I glanced at the postmark. It had been mailed three days ago, last Friday.

"Where should I put this, Mommy?" Nathan asked, jarring me from my thoughts. He was carrying an aluminum pie plate filled to the brim with sand.

"Are you going to make mud pies with that?" I asked hopefully. I'd been watching for signs that my five-year old was outgrowing his neat-nick stage. If he'd learn to appreciate mud play, maybe he'd be less of a fussbudget around the house.

"I have to hurry. I'm going to drop it!"

"Just put it down, then."

I winced as he set the pan on the tallest remaining petunia stem.

"It's for bird footprints," he explained. "Like those people in Hollywood who make footprints in sidewalks."

"Oh, I see. What a fun idea. Are you going to put some bird food on it?"

"It's not a birdfeeder," Nathan said firmly. "It's for bird footprints."

"I realize that, but birds are more likely to walk across a plate of dirt if it has bread crumbs on it." Unless the rabbits get to the crumbs first, I thought sourly and headed toward the house.

On the front porch, Karen, my seven-year-old daughter, was jumping rope, her teeth clenched in concentration. She stopped her whirling rope and grinned at me.

"You're getting really good at skipping rope."

She nodded: "Now watch how long I can do it backwards." She took a deep breath, purposefully set her angelic features, and mistimed her first jump. She giggled, rolled her eyes, and said. "Wait, Mom. I can do better than that."

She started jumping again and I watched, though my thoughts were with Mrs. Kravett. Precious little time. At about the thirtieth jump, the rope caught on Karen's feet. She panted but smiled broadly.

"That's really good. I've got to make a phone call. Be right back."

I glanced again at the letter and its envelope. No phone number. No return address. This was so like Mrs. Kravett. More than once she'd answered a student's question with: "You expect me to do your research? Do I have Encyclopedia Britannica written on my forehead?"

I chuckled at the memory. Her number was listed in the phone book. I dialed. To my disappointment, there was no answer. I wanted to see her. I wanted to express my gratitude for the difference she'd made in my life. And I had a heartfelt apology to express as well. One that was long overdue.

Back outside, my children raced up and down the driveway in defiance of the sticky heat. They had adapted to upstate New York's humidity better than I had.

"Look, Mommy!" Nathan suddenly cried, pointing. A cottontail was crossing the Wilkinses' yard toward ours.

Waving my arms, I charged toward it. The rabbit nonchalantly hopped away.

"You just chased away the Easter Bunny!" Nathan cried.

"There's no such thing as—"

"Karen," I interrupted, sending her a warning look. I returned my attention to my son. "That wasn't the Easter Bunny. He comes in April; this is September. More importantly, the Easter Bunny wouldn't dream of eating Grandma's gardens. Especially not while we're in charge of them. Which reminds me, I've got to go get some gardening tools."

Muttering a satiric rendition of "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," I rounded my parents' white two-story colonial, then swung open the shed door. The air was so hot, thick, and stagnant, I imagined myself inhaling gnats.

I grabbed the hoe as a possible bunny bludgeon and a fertilizer made from dried blood. My mother had advised that it doubled as a rodent repellent. When I returned to the front garden, Nathan was crumbling a chocolate chip cookie into his sand contraption "so the birds can have dessert!"

I started weeding, my children having immediately claimed the hoe for themselves. At least for once I could recognize which plants were weeds. They were the only uneaten ones. Karen and Nathan made horrid scraping noises as they hoed the blacktop and, equally gratingly, bickered about whose turn it was now.

The neighbor's garage opened. An instant later, little Rachel Wilkins bolted outside and ran across the yard. Her blond curls bounced, and she sported a wide missing-front-teeth smile.

"Hi, Karen."

"Rachel," her mother, Lauren, called after her, "we don't have time to visit now." Lauren leaned out of the garage to see that, indeed, Rachel was ignoring her. The two girls were already jumping rope in tandem. Lauren shook her head good-naturedly and approached.

More than once, I'd heard Lauren Wilkins described as big-boned and round-faced. She was also beautiful and moved with an elegant grace, as if her steps were choreographed to ballroom music. She'd been my best friend from first grade through senior high. Living near her again after all this time was like finding a long-lost lucky charm.

"Rachel and I are on our way to the store," Lauren said to me. "Need anything?"

"If you see any 'Bunny Be Gone,' I could use a gallon or so."

Lauren chuckled. "Gee, Moll. It's only been three weeks. Will your plants survive a whole year till Jim gets back?"

"I doubt it." My stomach clenched a little at the mention of my husband's absence. Jim, an electrical engineer, had agreed to a temporary assignment in Albany, New York, but upon our arrival here, his employer changed it to the Philippines. "The lawn will probably go next, soon as the grass blades catch on that Molly Black-Thumb Masters is their new caretaker."

Lauren glanced with interest at the sand-filled pie plate, already crawling with ants attracted to the cookie crumbs.

"Welcome to my garden. First rabbits, now ants. Pests are the only things that flourish in my presence."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. Your children are certainly flourishing."

"Thanks. And bless you."

Lauren had a rare gift for saying just the right thing. Then again, if Lauren's knack were commonplace, the greeting card industry would be cut in half, and I'd be out of a career.

"Why don't you let Rachel stay and play with Karen while you get your errands done?"

"I wish I could. but I need Rachel to help choose school supplies. With school beginning tomorrow, it's now or never."

Nathan dropped the hoe and gaped at us. Fearful at the prospect of starting kindergarten, he clung to the hope that tomorrow would never arrive if no one talked about it.

I gave him a reassuring smile and said to Lauren,

"Guess what? I just got a letter from Mrs. Kravett. She wants me to get together with her. I'm looking forward to seeing her again. I'll finally get to truly apologize to her."

"That's wonderful." She met my eyes and smiled. "Be sure and tell her hello for me."

"She wrote in her letter that she had 'precious little time.'"

Lauren winced. "Oh, dear. I saw her two months ago. She seemed healthy then, but I think she's on heart medication." She sighed and ran her fingers through her shoulder-length brown hair. "Funny, isn't it, how your opinions about authority figures change once you get older? Remember how our class voted her 'Most Likely to Be Killed by a Student'?"

I nodded, feeling my cheeks warm. The category had been my invention.

After a minute of cajoling that rapidly changed into parental threats, Lauren and her daughter left. I waved as they drove away from the house that Lauren had recently inherited, fortunately for me. Her proximity made the mix-up with, my husband's year-long temporary assignment more bearable.

Karen started shouting. Nathan, upon realizing the hoe was no longer prized by his sister, was now playing a game of: dodge Karen's jump rope while she yelled, "Cut it out!"

"I'm going to be downstairs in my office for a little while," I called to them, leaving them to work out their differences on their own.

Lauren's news about Mrs. Kravett's possibly having a heart condition worried me. I pressed the redial button on my phone. Still no answer. I put it out of my mind and went to work. Three weeks earlier, along with moving halfway across the country, I had started my own company that specialized in personalized eCards. So far, customers for Molly's eCards were referrals from friends and from my former place of employment, an alternative greeting cards company in Boulder. I'd recently amped up my social media: tweeting and tooting my horn on every social outlet I could think of. I'd decided to advertise mostly through posts that demonstrated my one marketable skill—cartooning.

Within a few minutes, I'd sketched a concept for a new greeting card. It was a cartoon drawing of Moses standing in a flowerbed surrounded by dozens of floppy-eared rabbits as he commanded, "LET MY GARDEN GROW!" The card was somewhat lacking in what was known in the industry as sendability, but it made me feel better. Besides, when I didn't have any prepaid work to do, I would design and post cartoons to serve as advertisements.

With tremendous thundering of little feet, the children raced downstairs to the office doorway. I braced myself. They rarely interrupted my work without good reason.

"Mom?" Karen panted. Nathan stood beside her, their expressions mirror images of deep concern. "Which of us do you like better?"

I held out my arms, and they rushed into a hug. "I love both of you the same amount and more than anything in the world." That was true and was voiced without forethought, but now I paused to consider what had made their question so pressing. "So does your daddy. You know how much he wishes he were here with us, don't you?"

"But which of us is your favorite?" Karen insisted.

"You're my favorite daughter, and Nathan is my favorite son. I love you both. Just like you two love both me and Daddy."

"Unh, unnhhh," Nathan loudly corrected. "I like Daddy more than you."

"Thanks, Nathan," Karen said, giggling. "Now Mom definitely likes me better than you."

I started to chuckle at my daughter's remark, but instantly sobered as Nathan sank to the floor and began to cry. I lifted him onto my lap and kissed his damp, salty cheek, as a sudden dowsing of self-doubt spilled over me. Could I handle being a single parent? Maybe I would be so bitter by the time Jim returned, I'd greet him with, "Welcome back, but the kids and I are outta here."

With the thirteen-hour time difference, it was dreadfully early Tuesday morning in the city of Manila but Jim was an early riser. "I think this is a good time to call Daddy."

I dialed his hotel and when Jim was on the line said, "There's a little man here who needs to talk to you." I handed the phone to Nathan, who spoke in one-word responses.

Karen soon claimed the phone from her brother and chattered happily about plans with Rachel and starting school in the morning. She ended with, "Okay. I'll put her on," then tossed me the phone and announced she was going back outside to await Rachel's return. Nathan followed Karen up the stairs.

"Hi, honey," Jim said. "How are things in Albany?"

"Okay, except that we miss you. And Nathan says he loves you more than me. Everyone always talks about building children's self-esteem. If I were a trained therapist, I'd start a course for mothers called Rebuilding Your Own Self-Esteem."

Jim's chuckle in response sounded rather sad.

"So anyway," I said, "how are things in Albania?"

"Okay, I guess. I miss you, too."

We chatted for a while, then hung up. The reference to Albania was a private joke. Upon first hearing that Jim's assignment had been changed to overseas, I'd asked whether his boss had said the job was in Albany when he meant Albania.

I felt more depressed now than before the call. I reminded myself about the sound reasons behind my being husbandless and once again living at 2020 Little John Lane. Jim and I had shuddered at the thought of trying to feed "highly seasoned dishes" to children who firmly believed the four food groups were macaroni and cheese, Rice Krispies, peanut butter, and pepperoni pizza. Not to mention the likelihood of subjecting them to typhoons. Karen could adjust to such a radical change, but Nathan couldn't. He became so stressed out last year when we bought a new dining room table, he'd tried to run away.

As it was, we had taken many weeks to carefully prepare him for the move to Carlton, the Albany suburb where my parents' house was located.

Our own house was rented out, so a return to Boulder meant battling CU students for the few choice rental properties. Plus, there would have been the matter of explaining the change of heart to my parents, who'd generously offered us their northern home while they stayed year-round in their Florida condo. Not one of my imaginary conversations with them had evolved such that I sounded the capable thirty-five-year-old I fancied myself as, and not the flaky teenager I sometimes saw reflected in my parents' eyes.

Determined not to second-guess my decision to stay in Carlton, I stretched and rose. Too often people missed beautiful scenery all around them when they daydreamed about the path not taken.

I decided to join the children outside.

Partway to the stairs, I heard my computer make the pleasant little chime for an email to my business site. I returned to the office and clicked on my email tab, hoping for a two-year agreement for Molly's eCards. The new email had no subject line, and had been sent by my personal email address.

Puzzled, I clicked on that email and read:

This is all your fault. You think no one knows you're guilty. But I do. You made that dear lady's life pure HELL. Now she's gone. If you want to stay alive yourself, get out. NOW! Leave us alone. Or you'll be sorry. DEAD SORRY!

My heart pounded. I had a paralyzing fear that the "dear lady" was Mrs. Kravett. Someone had figured out how to make it look as if my personal email account had sent this to my business address. My computer must have been hacked. I took a screen shot and printed it, which only took a couple of seconds; my biggest business investment to date was a new upscale all-in-one printer, fax, and scanner. I wanted to show the email to Lauren and get her opinion on what I should do. I folded the printed note and stuck it in my pocket.

I called Mrs. Kravett's house again. I let it ring and ring. No answer.

Sensing a small person's eyes, I turned and lowered the handset into its cradle. My son was standing behind me, staring at the seat of my shorts.

"Mom? Why is your butt attached to your legs?"

"So that you can sit," I answered numbly and dropped into the chair.

© Leslie O'Kane


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