The Grandmother Plot: A Novel
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An unforgettable new mystery from Caroline B. Cooney, international bestselling author of The Face on the Milk Carton
"Caroline B. Cooney is a master of taking a small, common moment—seeing a face on a milk carton, posting a harmless photo—and turning that moment into a thrilling story."—Jeff Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of Never Ask Me
Death isn't unexpected in a nursing home. But murder is.
Freddy leads a life of little responsibility. His mother is dead, his sisters are far-flung across the globe, and he can't quite work up enough motivation to find himself a girlfriend. Freddy has been forced to place his beloved grandmother, now deep in dementia, in a nursing home. Freddy visits her often, cherishing and also hating the time he spends with the grandmother he always adored, now a ghost of her former self.
When a fragile old woman already close to death is murdered in that nursing home, Freddy panics. His sources of income are iffy, as are his friends. He has to keep his grandmother safe, keep himself anonymous, and keep the police out of his life—or the complications could become deadly.
From international bestselling author of The Face on the Milk Carton Caroline B. Cooney, The Grandmother Plot is the story of a young man who can't seem to straighten out his life, his beloved grandmother, who can't seem to remembers hers, and the shadowy threat that hangs over them both.This extraordinary new story will appeal to readers of bestselling mysteries and book club fiction such as:
- A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
- What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr
- The Shadows We Hide by Allen Eskens
Release date: July 6, 2021
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Print pages: 274
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The Grandmother Plot: A Novel
Caroline B. Cooney
Freddy rode his bike instead of taking his grandmother’s old Avalon or his grandfather’s old pickup. He raced happily up narrow back roads wrapped in old stone walls and took the sharp curves at high speed. For nine miles, orange and red leaves drifted down on his shoulders and spun under the tires. Great trip. The destination—not so much. He was headed to Middletown Memory Care, an institution that was not in fact caring for memories. They were caring for people who had once had memories and would never find them again.
In a vehicle, he’d arrive at MMC from Route 9, but bikes weren’t allowed on the divided highway. He ended up west of MMC in a neighborhood of tiny old houses, cramped lots, and street parking on short one-way roads. The houses favored fencing, and there were chain link and white picket, bamboo and cast iron—everybody safely tucked into their little kingdom. Each garage was a separate little building in the backyard. Freddy entertained himself by planning how to convert the garages into glassblowing studios.
Ahead of him was a four-way stop. Freddy was pretty casual about stop signs, on the theory that they didn’t apply to bikes, but he did slow down.
Coming from the right, braking for the stop sign, was a white Toyota Corolla. The driver’s window was down and his elbow halfway out of the car. He was looking straight ahead and had not glanced in Freddy’s direction.
The profile was unmistakable.
It was Doc.
He was supposed to be in Vegas. What was he doing in a plain little city in Connecticut?
He’s not going to kneecap me, Freddy told himself. It’s not as if I owe money. I just push paper.
Freddy swerved into the first driveway on his right, hoping for a fence-free escape route. The house sat close to the street, and almost immediately, it protected him from view. There was fencing, but just six-foot chain link to keep a dog in. The dog raced back and forth, barking. Freddy rode between shrubs into the yard directly behind. Here, a vegetable garden was fenced but not the driveway, so he zipped down it and came safely out on the parallel street.
He turned left to emerge behind the Toyota and get a second look at the driver.
The intersection was empty.
Either Freddy had conjured Doc out of thin air or Doc had driven on.
Freddy zigzagged uphill to the low brick buildings of MMC. He locked his bike behind the stinking dumpster and the row of massive, never-pruned rhododendrons, where it couldn’t be seen from the road or the parking lot. He did this a lot because he liked alleys but now on the remote chance that Doc really was out there. Doc was not a guy you wanted in your life. He’d been in medical school years ago and got caught with marijuana in his book bag, back when possession was a crime and not a recreational puff. He ended up with a jail sentence instead of an MD.
Doc was furious and bitter every hour of every day. Society had screwed him because of a handful of dried-up flowers, turned him into a felon with a record because back, then the world didn’t rank marijuana the same as coffee or cigarettes. Doc’s hobby these days was mixed martial arts, a violent, full-combat sport popular in certain pipe circles. It had not siphoned off his anger.
Freddy went in through the employees’ entrance, which was supposed to be locked. In good weather, though, they propped it open for fresh air, which was in short supply in a place that smelled of cleaning fluids and old bodies. He preferred to skip the front desk, because they liked you to sign in, and Freddy was opposed to any kind of regimentation.
Two aides were heading for the staff room.
“Hey, Grace,” he said. “Hey, Mary Lou.” Grace was short and squat, wore her hair in a crew cut, and today sported filigree earrings dangling to her shoulders. Mary Lou was slender and pretty but always smiled carefully, embarrassed by missing teeth. She was saving up for dental work. They both had circles under their eyes.
He told them how beautiful they were, because it boggled Freddy’s mind that anybody would actually do this for a living, and the women were beautiful in his eyes, no matter how overweight or underweight, no matter how tired or bedraggled. They didn’t yell at him for coming through the employees’ entrance because he was the only young man who visited and they loved him for it.
Grace and Mary Lou were on break or they wouldn’t be in this part of the building. Listen, if he worked here, Freddy would be “on break” the whole shift. He headed to the locked door that led to the residence wings and tapped in the code that opened the door.
He walked through the big common room full of aides, dining tables, sitting areas, visitors, and residents. He didn’t see Mrs. Maple, who generally visited her aunt Polly the same time he was visiting Grandma. That was too bad, because Mrs. Maple was his first line of defense against the horror of dementia visits.
In Grandma’s wing, Jade was working. She was a few years older than Freddy, and why she didn’t get a restaurant job or a grocery-store job or anything at all except taking care of his incontinent grandmother, Freddy didn’t know. He asked once and she was surprised. “I like this,” she said and didn’t seem to be lying.
“Hi, Jade,” said Freddy.
“Miss Cordelia doin’ well today,” said Jade.
“Hey! Great news,” said Freddy. Except that Grandma doing well simply meant she’d had lunch.
Freddy found his grandmother in her little room, where the single shelf held photographs of the husband she no longer remembered. Jade had dressed her with care in a pale-yellow sweater, a soft gray skirt, and a necklace of Freddy’s glass beads that his ex-girlfriend, Cynthia, had strung together. The color range was apricot apple, using an early swirl technique that Freddy would execute a lot better if he were making it today.
“Hey, Grandma,” said Freddy. He knelt down in front of her so she’d see who was talking.
Her face lit up, which meant she knew him, and Freddy felt his own face going happy. She said, “Arthur!” in that eager, breathy voice.
Freddy took her hand. It was frighteningly thin, toothpick bones draped in saggy skin. She no longer had any grip, so it was like a piece of paper resting inside his own callused, burned, hard palm. Right up until last week, his grandmother could remember his name, and then last week, she said, “Arthur, dear, did you have a good lunch?” Arthur was Grandma’s son. Died in Vietnam, so long ago Freddy couldn’t even remember the decade, but Arthur’s death was burned in Grandma’s soul.
Freddy didn’t mind being Arthur. At least she knew he was family.
The activity director scurried up. Heidi’s amazing enthusiasm penetrated even the most comatose dementia patients. “Freddy! Yay! Marvelous to see you! We’re playing ball! Let’s you two join us!”
Playing ball when you were deep in dementia involved using a foam noodle, like for a swimming pool, as a bat. You whacked at a heavy-duty balloon, generally bright red, so that even a really vague person could spot it. Half the residents were too vague even for that and just sat there. Half really got into it, whapping the balloon across the room to another patient, who would not notice or else swing hard but miss. Heidi would cheer, “Go, Edna! Yes, Herbert! Thatta girl, Betty!”
Respectively, Edna, Herbert, and Betty had been a history teacher, a civil engineer, and a bank executive. What had Grandma been, exactly? She had never held a job, never had that thing called a career. The list of her achievements was homely: typing up the stencil for the church bulletin and running the mimeograph machine; chair of the church fair for decades, every year stitching up a couple dozen aprons to sell, each with pockets and bibs and matching pot holders. She’d been on the library board for half a century, writing the newsletter and running the summer reading clubs. She had played pinochle and euchre and cherished her perennial garden.
She didn’t remember any of it.
“Thanks, Heidi,” said Freddy, suppressing a shudder at the thought of dementia ball. “You’re awesome, but I think we’ll go for a spin.” He pushed Grandma’s wheelchair through the common room to the locked exit, tapped in the code, and out they went.
At first, Grandma had asked about that code. “Where do you get it, Freddy?”
“I’ll find out for you,” Freddy would say. “Now let’s put this scarf on because it’s chilly. You look great in that scarf, Grandma.” And they would be through the door and she would have forgotten about codes.
Middletown Memory Care was a lockup because a large fraction of its residents spent all day trying to leave. The deep anxiety that ruled so many dementia patients meant they wanted only one thing: out. They didn’t know much, but they always knew this wasn’t the life they used to lead.
A large fraction of families never took their loved one on a drive or out for dinner because they’d never be able to shovel them back in.
Freddy and Grandma arrived in the sunshine. Since his grandmother always forgot that the outside even existed, it thrilled her. “It’s so nice out!” she cried.
Listen, it was nice to be outside Memory Care no matter what the weather was.
Freddy sucked in fresh, uncaged air and said hi to Kenneth Yardley, who was just arriving. Mr. Yardley visited his wife, Maude, a lot. He fed her lunch, brushed her teeth, put her down for a nap, read out loud to her. If Maude knew her husband was around, she didn’t show it.
It’s strange to love somebody who is not all there, which was Freddy’s lot.
It’s strange to love somebody who does not know you, which was true for a good percentage of MMC residents.
It is strangest of all to love somebody who will not know or care if you ever show up again, and that was Kenneth Yardley’s situation.
Mr. Yardley gave Freddy a distracted, desperate smile. He fumbled around trying to find the doorknob. This was not a good sign, because the street door was normal. Freddy had a bad feeling Maude was going to get a roommate in here before long. He waited till Mr. Yardley found his way in and then pushed Grandma down the sidewalk to a gate in the big iron fence.
“I don’t like him,” said his grandmother. “He’s a meany beany.”
Freddy was startled. Grandma’s lifelong rule was to like everybody, and if she didn’t like the person, she certainly never said so out loud. “Mr. Yardley?” he asked.
“I don’t know who he is,” said Grandma, who did not recognize her own daily aides. “But that little girl? He’s mean to her.”
Freddy pondered this information. There were no little girls around here. Maude was the same size as Grandma, though: down to maybe a hundred pounds with a lot of white hair that was no longer possible to brush or comb but just did its weird electric-outlet thing. Maybe Maude looked like an elementary school child to a ninety-three-year-old. Or maybe Grandma had some other little girl in mind, was thinking of all the little girls she had known over nine decades.
“He’s a good guy,” said Freddy. “He comes most days.”
“Who does?” asked his grandmother.
“Is that a friend of yours, Arthur?”
Freddy decided not to pursue this conversation. He lifted the gate bolt, too high up and too stiff for a resident to manage, even if the resident escaped the unit. They followed a paved sidewalk that wound slowly downhill toward the same neighborhood he’d just ridden through.
Sometimes he pointed out dogs and bikes and flowers to his grandmother, and after much direction, she might actually spot them. She loved airplanes and cried out with pleasure if she followed his pointing finger and actually saw a little silver streak in the sky. Once, she confided to him, “It must really be bigger than that.”
Now she asked, “Where is Alice?”
Alice was Freddy’s mother. She’d been killed in an accident last year. “Alice is in France,” Freddy lied. Grandma had attended her daughter’s funeral, but she had forgotten. Freddy usually went with the France excuse, and because his mother had loved France, visiting some region every year, he could pretend it was true. He certainly wished it was true. “You lived in France once, Grandma.”
Grandma was puzzled. Freddy didn’t know if she couldn’t remember taking her year abroad in France or couldn’t remember France in general.
Now they were among the little old homes wrapped in old-fashioned shrubs like lilac next to old-fashioned front porches. Freddy was currently camping in Grandma’s house, which was seriously old-fashioned, like a history museum for a curator who was never coming back. He’d turned the entire lower level into a glass studio. Everything he was doing in his life was a trespass on his grandparents, but especially smoking weed in the room where his anti-alcohol, anti-tobacco, anti-swearing grandpa had watched baseball and worked on his model trains.
Grandma said in a panicky voice, “Arthur?”
He circled the chair and stooped beside her again. “It’s me, Freddy,” he said softly. “Everything’s okay, Grandma.”
He often made this ridiculous claim. Sometimes Grandma called him on it. “What’s okay, Freddy?” she would ask, as if she expected a list, since certainly she didn’t know of anything okay. But today his answer soothed her.
He picked up an especially bright-red leaf and gave it to her. She took it wonderingly, as if it held secrets.
There at the corner, maybe twenty or thirty yards away, sat the white Toyota Corolla, as if it had never moved but had been waiting patiently, knowing that Freddy, with his stoner brain and lousy short-term memory, would be back.
No, Freddy told himself, white sedans are generic. It’s a different one. It can’t be Doc. I need it not to be Doc.
It was going the opposite direction from before, so now the passenger side was closer to Freddy. The front-seat passenger rolled down his window and leaned out. He was young, probably not out of his teens, and skinny, with pale hair pulled into a ponytail dry as dead grass.
“Hey, Freddy,” he shouted, his voice a playground taunt. Gotcha!Freddy had never seen him before.
The driver shoved the kid out of his way and thrust his immense torso toward the window. Doc.
Freddy had a well-developed sense of fear, but since moving to Connecticut to take care of his grandmother, he had shelved it, convinced of his invisibility. After all, he had the same cell phone number from when he lived in Evanston, so no one in glass could know that he had moved across the country to his grandmother’s house. Grandpa had been dead for ten years, but bills and taxes were still in Vincent Chase’s name, while Freddy’s last name was Bell. Freddy had a Facebook site and Instagram and hundreds of followers, but he talked only of glass. He certainly never mentioned his grandmother.
Even after the Leper’s last phone call—Freddy still saying no when the only answer the Lep accepted from anybody was yes—Freddy had not been worried, let alone afraid. The Lep even texted him a photograph of Doc, stripped from the waist up, all muscle, tattoo, and scar.
He’s coming, said the caption.
Freddy just laughed. They couldn’t find him.
But here was Doc. Not just in Connecticut but in Middletown, where Freddy didn’t live, and nobody could have suspected his presence in this neighborhood.
“Arthur?” said Grandma anxiously.
He really had to cut back on weed. He was not thinking at all today, never mind thinking straight. He had been caught with the most vulnerable person in his life. The person he loved most, even though most of the person had evaporated, and the most dangerous man he knew was looking straight at her.
Bad enough Doc had seen Freddy pushing a wheelchair. He couldn’t let Doc figure out that it was his own helpless grandmother, living a quarter mile away.
Freddy mentally mapped the maze of short one-way streets. The Toyota could not turn down the street where he and Grandma had paused. At least not legally. But Freddy didn’t care about stuff like that. Why would Doc?
One good thing. The intersection had now filled with other cars who were getting impatient. Freddy could go down a one-way street where Doc couldn’t follow, but he could push a wheelchair only so fast. The sidewalks weren’t great. There were dips and cracks. The slightest jolt could tip his grandmother out. She might even fall face-first because among all the other essential skills lost in dementia was the ability to protect yourself from a fall. And bizarrely, wheelchairs had no seat belts, because in the institutional world, they were considered cruel restraints.
Freddy’s glass specialty—lampwork—involved holding rods in front of his body for hours at a time, so Freddy was very strong. He could easily lower and lift the wheelchair at curbs. But what he couldn’t do was gather speed.
He could carry Grandma, abandoning the wheelchair, and cut through yards the way he had with the bike. ...
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