When a woman asks Gage and Anna Dekker to adopt her unborn child, it seems nothing short of miraculous.
Still reeling from a miscarriage but yearning to be parents again—both had lost children in previous marriages—the Dekkers were already in the midst of searching for a surrogate. Enter Lily, a pregnant cocktail waitress who comes knocking at their door, ready to answer their prayers.
But what seems like a miracle starts to resemble a curse once Lily moves into their home. An incident at Christmas—one that dredges up memories of Gage's dead son—causes Gage to question if Lily is truly the saint she appears to be ...
In the following excerpt of Daniel Palmer’s domestic thriller Desperate, tensions have been steady between Gage, Anna, and Lily. And when a visit to Anna’s hospitalized mother ends in a bizarre outburst, Gage is left to question, once more, if he and Anna have made a deal with the devil.
Read on for an excerpt of Desperate, and then download the book.
Anna’s mother lived nine miles from our house—a short drive, unless that drive happened to be going from Arlington to Brookline. Traffic was always a problem, and that Saturday morning it seemed exceptionally heavy. As a couple, we went to see Bessie every other week, though Anna visited more often on her own. We’d never brought a visitor with us, but then again we’d never had a visitor who was going to bring a granddaughter into Bessie’s life. This wasn’t just about making an introduction, either. We had visuals to share.
The air conditioners at Carney House were blasting on high when we arrived. They didn’t cool the air so much as push around an overpowering smell of detergents and cleansers that failed to mask the scent of death and dying. Lily dressed in a black skirt, dark leggings, and a hipster top with glittery beads.
It had been one week since she almost stormed out of our lives forever. One week for the baby to grow a little bit bigger. In that time, Anna took care of Lily’s medical needs, including getting her an appointment with an OB/GYN in Arlington. The OB, Dr. Andrew Hill, whom I knew only from his picture on the website, would monitor Lily’s progress throughout her pregnancy. I had offered to take time off work to be there for the first ultrasound of our baby, but Anna deep-sixed that idea as soon as it had left my lips.
“I just think in light of what happened,” Anna said.
“You think I’d make Lily uncomfortable,” I said.
As a way of saying yes, Anna said nothing at all.
“Did Lily say something to you?” I asked.
“You’re a wonderful husband, a wonderful person, and you’ll be a wonderful father to our baby, so please don’t take it personally. Lily didn’t even want me to be in the room with her while they did the ultrasound. She was very worried they might find something wrong with the baby. She asked me to wait in the parking lot.”
I knew the subtext of that conversation. Lily wasn’t showing very much. Anna tried to minimize Lily’s concern (and Anna’s) by using the Internet to find plenty of stories with similar situations and good outcomes.
“It’s especially common in first pregnancies,” Anna said.
Even with this information, there was still much worrying on the day of Lily’s appointment. Needless worrying, as it happened. Lily’s doctor didn’t find anything wrong at all. In fact, everything looked splendidly right. According to Dr. Hill, Lily was eleven weeks pregnant. That meant we were inching ever closer to the second trimester, during which a miscarriage becomes an uncommon 1 to 5 percent possibility. In statistical terms, that put us in the clear to becoming parents. For this alone Anna breathed easier, walked with a lighter load. She hadn’t let go of the ultrasound image since we’d gotten out of the car.
As for Lily, she still seemed bewildered by it all. I couldn’t blame her. In a span of a few short weeks, she went from getting pregnant, to living with us, to walking the halls of a nursing home. I could see the nurses here who knew Anna and me as a couple eyeing Lily with curiosity. If asked, what would I tell them? “Oh, she’s the birth mother, we’re the baby’s future parents, and we’re here for a show-and-tell that Bessie will probably forget before we even leave her room.”
Alzheimer’s is a horrible, ravaging, savage disease. What’s worse, I asked—knowing you’re sick or knowing you’re sick and constantly forgetting why? It robbed those afflicted with the only meaningful possessions accumulated over the course of a lifetime—memories. In the three-stage Alzheimer’s model, Bessie was late two, moving toward early three. Put another way, she had punched her ticket to the next level of Dante’s inferno.
Carney House was a Special Care Unit, staffed with people specifically trained to work with Alzheimer’s patients. The yellow-sided, two-story complex sat on a quarter acre of land in a secluded section of Brookline not far from the public golf course. It might have looked a little bit like an Embassy Suites from the outside, but inside it was a skilled nursing facility with 124 beds and all the creature comforts of home. From the beige carpeting to the wallpaper decorated with ivy, the interior design of Carney House tried valiantly to distance itself from the facility’s true intent.
Anna stopped at the registration desk to check us in, while I followed Lily over to the common area. It was a typical scene inside the large, sun-drenched room with some residents in wheelchairs, some just sitting, some watching TV, some playing games, some chatting with a visiting relative, some just staring out into nothing.
“They seem so lonely,” Lily said in a whispered voice.
“It’s the best place for them,” I said.
“Best place, huh? Not for me. I don’t plan to ever grow old,” Lily said.
“We all grow old, Lily. I’m sorry, but it’s a fact of life.”
Lily’s look, almost a smirk, was unnerving.
“Some of us don’t grow old,” she said, brushing past me on her way over to Anna.
I felt my blood pressure spike. Was she referring to Max and Karen? Or was it just a thoughtless remark from a young woman? Was I again making something out of nothing?
After checking us in, Anna led the way down a long, carpeted corridor to room 102, Bessie’s home. I followed, doing my best to believe that Lily had meant something else, anything else. Would I mention this to Anna? No good would come from that conversation—more paranoia on my part, more accusations of my looking for a way out of this situation.
Knocking once on Bessie’s door, Anna entered without waiting for permission. Bessie Miller was lying in her adjustable bed doing nothing. The TV wasn’t on. She wasn’t reading, because she couldn’t follow the words. She wasn’t knitting or painting, because she had forgotten how. Her room was neat because she had nothing to clutter it up. Anna had put some pictures around the room, including some from our wedding, and one of her and Kevin, a copy of the photograph I had doctored to take out Edward, her ex, the rapist.
"Some of us don't grow old," she said.
There wasn’t much to look at. The room had a bed, a little side table with paper cups and a pitcher of water, a large armoire, and dresser with more floral-patterned nightgowns in it. Bessie didn’t dress in anything else unless she was being taken for a walk outside or wheeled to one of Carney House’s many scheduled activities. The activities calendar was tacked to a corkboard hanging on the wall opposite Bessie’s bed. Trivia fun. Simon Says. Beauty Hour. Movie Time. Arts & Crafts. She could even do chair yoga, should the spirit move her. Not that Bessie partook in any of those offerings. Late-stage Alzheimer’s sucked the fun out of just about everything. It also drained the life from Bessie’s face, and any resemblance between mother and daughter would be found only in the photographs Anna had left behind in her late-night escape from Los Angeles. All of those captured moments, every picture from Anna’s childhood, every picture of a young mother and her daughter, of whatever family gatherings had been documented, were lost like Bessie’s memories.
“Hi, Mom. How are you feeling today?” Anna crossed the room. She pulled open the curtains, letting in a bright swath of sunlight before giving her mother a tender kiss on the forehead. Anna spoke loudly, as if the timbre of her speech might jog loose some recollection of how Bessie really was doing. “It’s me, it’s Anna. Hi, Mom!”
Not a single response.
Anna noticed a tray and plates with the crumbs of some meal scattered on the roll-away table.
“Did you have lunch?” Anna asked. “What did you have?”
Bessie moved her mouth, her thin lips parting, words forming, but none uttered. Anna’s mother had a round face and a full head of wavy silver hair, jowly cheeks, and loose wrinkled skin. Her brown eyes, set by pronounced crow’s feet, were dull as if to announce how her world had gone out of focus. For a woman in her seventies, Bessie Miller looked a decade and some older.
As was the routine, Anna pulled up a chair and sat by her mother’s bedside, holding her hand. Meanwhile, Lily hovered in a corner of the room, arms folded across her chest. To anybody who didn’t know our story, Lily fit the mold of a granddaughter making a reluctant visit.
“Have you been feeling well, Mom?” Anna asked.
“Hi, you’re here,” Bessie said in a scratchy voice.
“Yeah, Mom, we’ve come to share some exciting news with you.”
We hadn’t told my parents yet, but that would come soon enough. Anna held up the manila envelope for Bessie to see.
“You came here,” Bessie said. “What day is it?”
“It’s Saturday, Mom. We always come to visit you on a Saturday.”
“Oh, you came.”
I couldn’t guess how much our presence here comforted Bessie. The eyes as windows to the soul might be a cliché, but someone came up with the saying for a reason. Judging by Bessie’s blank expression, I wasn’t entirely sure she even knew we were here. Our visit comforted Anna, and that was what mattered most to me.
Anna took the images out of the oversized envelope and held each up for Bessie to see. I’d seen them already. They showed a distinct baby form—head, belly, leg, arm, and an umbilical chord terminating into the black mass of the uterus. What the image didn’t show definitively was the sex of the baby. We decided not to know even if we got a clearer image. Life had so few true surprises.
“Mom, this is the new baby that Gage and I are going to adopt,” Anna said.
“Is it Thursday?” Bessie asked. “I’m supposed to be somewhere Thursday.”
“No, Bessie, it’s Saturday,” I said, coming around to the side of the bed to put my hand on her frail and bony shoulder.
Lily kept to the corner of the room, her arms still folded. Watching.
“Gage and I have decided to adopt a baby,” Anna said. “We’re going to adopt Lily’s baby.”
Lily looked like she might pass out at the mere mention of her name. Anna beckoned Lily with a slight wave. Lily came forward in reluctant fashion, stopping at the foot of Bessie’s bed.
“This is Lily, Mom. She’s going to be the birth mother. She’s going to give you a grandchild.”
“Hi,” Lily said in a weak voice. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Inwardly, I felt myself shrinking at Lily’s evident discomfort. It was my harebrained idea to bring her here in the first place. I’d wanted to show Lily that I harbored no ill will, and more important, that I considered her to be a part of the family now. Lily seemed unsure of the idea, and yet I persisted. Perhaps I should have listened to Anna, who had voiced some concern.
Bessie looked up at Lily. I’d never seen Bessie make eye contact so quickly before. The two locked gazes, and Bessie’s mouth began to twitch. The side of her pale and cracked lip moved up and down, as though she were trying to figure out how to smile. Lily seemed more than a little unsure how to react.
“I’m glad you got to see the ultrasound . . . I mean sonogram,” Lily said, remembering the distinction I had told her between the two. “We’re very excited about the baby.”
Something in Bessie’s eyes changed. It was as though a film covering them had been wiped clean by an invisible hand. I’d never seen her look at someone with such clarity before. It was a bit unsettling, like she’d become a stranger. A flicker. A flash. Something had transpired, and Bessie seemed to come alive. She lifted one thin, frail arm off the bed. It rose as though being pulled by an invisible string. A finger extended, long and bony, shaking, too. It pointed at Lily, accusatory.
“You,” Bessie said in a harsh voice, crackling. “You. I know you. I know you.”
“Mom!” Anna said.
“You,” Bessie went on. “I know you.”
“We’ve never met. My name is Lily. I’m living above Anna and Gage’s house now.”
Bessie’s lips trembled like two rubber bands being stretched and twisted.
“You!” she said again, this time her voice growing louder until it rose to the decibel of a shout. “You! I know you! I know you!”
Lily’s color drained. She covered her mouth with her hands, and then turning on her heels, raced out of the room, fleeing Bessie’s rants. “You! I know you! You! I know you!”
The fog shrouding Bessie’s memories returned. No sooner had Lily bolted from the room than a window shade of sorts descended over Bessie’s eyes. Her head went still, followed by her body. The memory was gone.
Just like Lily.
Want to keep reading? Download Desperate, by Daniel Palmer.
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for Murder & Mayhem to continue publishing the mystery stories you love.
Featured photo: Daniil Kuzelev / Unsplash