From the 2014 edition of the University of West Florida’s Troubadour student anthology.
“What’s your earliest memory of Gracie? Do you remember holding her after she was born?”
Eloise Aberdeen chewed on the nail of her ring finger, searching empty space for a memory that wasn’t there.
“No,” she finally said, wide, bloodshot eyes rising to the man across the table.
Her eyes were bright blue like a shallow ocean and he idly wondered if she’d ever been crowned pageant queen of some town or county fair. Her strawberry hair was faded and thin, her skin burnt to wrinkled leather from a lifetime in the sun, but underneath that age, underneath the loss, was somebody’s pretty high school sweetheart.
She laughed, a phlegmy rumble in her smoke-worn larynx. “She was my last. I guess after you do it twice, giving birth just ain’t as memorable.”
They sat at a table in a little white house on a grassy hill. The house looked down over sloping farm fields cut by a stretch of dirt road. A barn rose squat and humble outside, around the back, a smudge of gray against blue sky.
Midday sun poured through the windows and drenched the bare walls inside the house with light, the stagnant air with heat. Somewhere in the house, the echoing tick of a clock measured out wasted breaths.
“We don’t have any records of a Gracie Shay Aberdeen.”
Mrs. Aberdeen mashed her lips together for a minute then said, “I don’t know what you want from me, Mister…”
“Whatever. Gracie is still my baby girl. I don’t know or care what it is you think she did.”
A file folder lay open near Bense’s elbow revealing two glossy monochrome photographs. He pushed the folder a little closer to Mrs. Aberdeen and tapped one photo with his index finger. It was an image of a young woman with wild curls and a white crescent smile, curves wrapped in silk as she leaned on the arm of a silver-haired man in a tuxedo.
“This is Gracie with media mogul Alexander Hoffman in Los Angeles. Hoffman remembers holding Gracie when she was just minutes old. His daughter Natalie remembers giving birth to her. It was a breech birth, and she had to have a caesarean.”
Mrs. Aberdeen’s eyes flicked across the picture, and she shook her head.
Bense said, “See, Gracie got more creative as she got older. She learned that if she were going to be believable, she had to make up a backstory. Those skills served her well. Hoffman has his dear little granddaughter in his will, set to receive a substantial sum. Oh, his lawyers were suspicious of the whole thing at first, but Gracie brought them around.”
Tick tick tick. Mrs. Aberdeen just breathed. Three names had been carved on the pantry door in the kitchen, each with an uneven progression of little horizontal lines rising taller and taller, three feet, four feet, five feet. White paint covered the names, but she traced the faint scars of them with her eyes.
Bense tapped the other photo. The same young woman draped herself over the arm of a young man, leaned close to whisper in his ear with that same glinting smile.
“This is Gracie and Jeremiah Fisk, CEO of one of the world’s biggest social networks. Jeremiah remembers growing up with Gracie in Nevada. They dated in high school, went their separate ways, and then ran into each other at a dinner party in New York. She had liked him way back, before he ever made the money, and that got him stuck on her all over again.” Bense inched the photo closer to Mrs. Aberdeen, but she turned her attention to the window over his shoulder. “Fisk had no family to fool, so maybe she would’ve taken him for his money outright and left. But something went wrong. He started acting crazy, doing weird things. That wasn’t like Gracie. Gracie makes it realistic, linear. It was because she’d started babbling gibberish all the time. Now, we don’t know for sure, but I suspect all that lie-telling got her mind all muddled. Whatever power she has over people burnt out her brain and started affecting him, too. That’s how we finally caught her trail.”
“This is ridiculous.” Mrs. Aberdeen laughed a little and flashed her teeth in what was meant as a smile, but it was mirthless and hard, like an animal warning off a predator. “Crazy.”
“These are just two of the twenty counts of fraud we’re investigating. She could’ve lived the good life off any one of these people, but she kept bouncing from one to another. She couldn’t stop making up stories.”
A crooked pink ridge ripped down the side of Bense’s hairless dome of a skull and seemed to Mrs. Aberdeen to throb when he spoke. He rubbed the scar with his index finger as if it still hurt him, as if it granted him some kind of strength or protection.
“Always was a creative little girl,” she said.
Bense jerked the photos back and slammed the folder shut. “It’s not just fraud though, is it? No, I suspect she has a body count we haven’t even uncovered yet. Tell me about how Bethany died.”
“Bethany was thirteen when she slipped in the well and drowned. Now, I would think a girl that age would know better than to play around wells. She was a smart enough girl, right? Her friends at school said her sister Gracie was getting mean toward her, like she was jealous.” Bense leaned close. “Maybe Gracie wanted to be your one and only baby girl? She was about Bethany’s age, right? Thirteen-year-old girls can be pretty cruel.”
“Gracie ran away after that and never came back. Not until now, right?”
“Get out of my house!” Her voice rose and broke and fell.
“Not yet.” Bense smirked and folded his arms across his chest. “My partner isn’t done looking around yet.”
A girl wandered up to the table from somewhere. Matted brown hair fell across blank features. Her lips were shiny, fingers sticky as she smacked a piece of lunchmeat between her lips and stared up at the adults with wide eyes.
“Who’s the kid?” Bense asked. When Mrs. Aberdeen didn’t answer, he turned to the girl. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
She blinked, turned, and shifted aimless feet in the direction of the kitchen like a dumb calf meandering between pastures.
“That’s my boy Alan’s daughter,” Mrs. Aberdeen said. “Sally.”
“Alan died in Afghanistan?”
“You already know. Why do you keep asking me questions you already got an answer for?”
Bense chewed his bottom lip to keep from smirking again. “All right then. Here’s one I don’t know. If you don’t remember giving birth to Gracie, what’s your first memory of her?”
Mrs. Aberdeen stared past Bense to the window behind him, and he turned to follow her gaze.
“Almost fifteen years ago. She had to be about five then, same as Sally. I stepped out the front door at sunset to call the kids in to dinner and there she was… looking so sweet back at me. Yelled ‘Momma’ and ran at me with her arms wide open.” She nodded. “That’s the first thing I remember. Everything before… I know it’s there, it’s just not clear in my mind the way that moment is.”
He could imagine it, looking through the window-framed picture of Mrs. Aberdeen’s front yard. Gracie would stand beneath the shade of the oak, by the tire swing, fading sunlight scattering in her curls and blossoming rosy pink in her cheeks. She’d be everything a mother could want.
The oak’s branches were barren now; the bleach white rope was frayed and hung from a sagging limb, the rotten shreds of the tire swaying in the breeze.
“You realize Gracie doesn’t look anything like you or your late husband.”
Her eyebrows dropped and her eyes narrowed, but before she could respond, his cellphone shrilled from the front pocket of his shirt.
“Bense,” he answered. He listened, flashed a smile at Mrs. Aberdeen. “Thanks, Camden.” He hung up and said, “The barn, huh? Not a very original place to hide someone.”
He stood and Mrs. Aberdeen stood with him so fast her chair tipped over.
“So what if she twists your mind, too?”
Bense rapped his knuckles on the scarred side of his head. The impacting thunk was louder than mere bone. “Took a bullet to the head in Desert Storm. This metal plate will keep her words from doing me any harm. At least that’s what the eggheads at the office tell me.”
He hurried outside, and Mrs. Aberdeen followed close behind, wringing her hands and twisting the fabric of her faded floral dress. She kept on his heels as he rounded the house but stopped on the back porch.
“You’re really just going to take her? The only child I have left?”
Bense whirled around. “Don’t you get it yet? She’s not your daughter!”
“I raised that girl.” Mrs. Aberdeen’s voice trembled. “Don’t talk to me like that means nothing because she didn’t come from my body.”
Bense snorted and shook his head before striding off toward the barn.
“You only raised her as much as she let you,” he called over his shoulder.
Mrs. Aberdeen stayed on the porch and squinted against the sun as she watched him go. Sally shuffled out of the house and the older woman clutched the girl’s head against her hip.
From behind him, Bense could hear Mrs. Aberdeen whisper, “They’re going to take her, Sally.”
As Bense approached Camden, he asked, “She’s definitely in there?”
She nodded. “There are fresh tracks heading inside. If she’s anywhere on the property, it’s there.”
“All right.” He glanced back toward the house. “Go make sure the woman doesn’t cause any trouble.”
Camden crossed the yard toward the house, and Bense waited until she was beyond hearing distance to enter the barn. The door groaned as it swung open. The whole barn shuddered with an arthritic creak. Dust showered down from the rafters, dull snowflakes drifting over a carpet of moldering hay. She was curled in a ball in the middle of the room, in the shadows, flakes of rotten wood speckling the wild red tangles of her hair. Her dress swallowed her narrow frame, cotton candy pink but crusted dark around the hem with dirt. A broken strap bared one pale shoulder.
As he crossed the barn’s threshold, she lifted her head. Her eyes were murky and empty, a stagnant pond.
“Gracie Shay Aberdeen, or whatever the hell your name actually is, you’re under arrest.”
“I’m the granddaughter of Alexander Hoffman. I’m your girlfriend.” Her eyes locked with his. “You met me at the fountain of youth. We have twelve children and we named them all John.” Spit bubbled over her lips and dribbled down her chin. She never blinked. “You remember the villa in Paris. We will fly first-class to the moon. Buy me a new dress, Granddad.”
“You don’t have any power over me,” Bense said. His step faltered as he studied her, compared her to the black and white picture in his mind. “You don’t even have any power over yourself.”
He pulled her up by one slender wrist and eased the silver cuff around it. She did not resist him.
“Who are you, really? Can you tell me that? Who were you before you showed up at this farm years ago?”
“I’m Gracie.” Her voice could’ve blown away in a lazy summer breeze. “I’m five years old. You’re my momma. No matter what anyone says, you’re my momma and you’re going to take me into the house and feed me. And give me a bed to sleep in. And love me. I’m your daughter.”
Bense cuffed the other wrist and ushered her outside. Up by the house, Camden knelt down in front of Sally. The little girl’s lips flapped, but Bense doubted anything sensible was coming out.
“Do you want to say goodbye to Mrs. Aberdeen?”
He clamped his hand around her elbow and walked beside her, brown grass crunching underfoot. She swayed and stumbled in a stilted rhythm as she clucked her tongue in measured beats.
“You can say goodbye, but then I’m going to gag you, okay? Don’t try anything stupid. You don’t want your momma to think badly of you, right? Or your little niece?”
Great gales of laughter burst from her throat. He stopped walking and turned to face her. There was that blade of a smile, perfectly curved and all teeth, stabbing straight into his gut. He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat.
“What’s so funny?”
“I don’t have a niece,” she giggled.
Movement in his peripheral vision. Bense looked back toward Camden just in time to see her fire her gun.
The bullet burrowed through his chest and left a trail of fire in its wake. Blood swelled hot in his throat, and as it gurgled out over his tongue, he realized he was down on the ground. The edges of reality began to soften and run like watercolor paints. He wondered if it was this way for Mrs. Aberdeen, for all the victims of Gracie’s stories. If the truth just loosened its lines and melted like the sun above him before it faded, dissolved in the shifting shadows of growing dark. He couldn’t remember the shape of the sun or of anything. Everything blurred together.
A voice boomed above him. He rolled his eyes up to look at her, but it was all so dark.
“But I do have a daughter.” Another giggle. “Momma will take care of us both. That’s what good mommas do.”
Sally spoke to Camden.
“Now point your gun at your head.” Camden did. “Pull the trigger.”
And Camden did.
When it was done, Mrs. Aberdeen hefted Sally up into her arms and brushed a kiss over her forehead. The old woman closed her eyes until she could smother her tears.
“Good job, Sally. You’ll be so creative, just like your momma. Just remember our rule, okay? Never lie to Grandmomma.” Sally nodded. “I can’t protect you if you lie to me like your momma did.”
She squeezed the little girl and set her back down.
“Take Momma back into the barn where I can’t hear her. I’ll start packing bags. “
As Sally led Gracie away, Mrs. Aberdeen watched Gracie’s lips move in another litany of lies that her broken mind accepted as truth.
“I’m Gracie, Eloise Aberdeen’s daughter. I’m Tracy, Jerry’s girlfriend. I’m Lucy, heir to the Walton oil fortune. You’re going to give me your bank account number. You’re going to take me shopping. You’re going to jump in the well. You’re going to believe my story.”
COPYRIGHT © 2014 SARAH A. SELENE