So this is pretty cheesy.
Well, you’ve been warned. This is the first chapter of an illustrated mystery novel that I started working on this spring. I was reading a review of the Hermione Granger series — i.e. a fake review that points out much of what’s wrong with the Harry Potter series and, generally, the stories we tell and make popular. It’s a quick and fun read, especially if you’ve read any of the books or seen any of the movies — but the gist is that the hero is a clueless wonder who’s pretty dull and doesn’t really do much beyond fall into heroism. Meanwhile, Hermione works her ass off, and seems a far more interesting character as a result, but is on the sidelines.
At the same time, I was watching Veronica Mars, and I wondered — what would my version of a Hermione meets Veronica meets all the other awesome kickass women characters I love? And so I wound up spending an entire day mapping out a series of mystery novels about a young woman named Sadie Hawkins with women I shared quite a bit (jobless PhD, wants to make the world better but feels powerless, values friendship/kindness/beauty/justice but feels pressured to put money over all else, returning home for a while, etc.). I figured it was silly, but my friends encouraged me to actually write the durn thing. Here’s the summary of the first book…
SADIE HAWKINS AND THE GIRL IN QUESTION
It is September 2012, and Viola “Sadie” Hawkins is returning to her hometown of Calydon, Michigan with little to show for 11 years of schooling but a thick and well-printed piece of paper declaring her “Doctor of Folklore.” She’s come to consider moving in with her father, whose health has lately been so-so, but in the meantime, she’s meeting up with long lost friends and a few broken-hearted lovers. Sadie’s even been contracted to help an old frenemy with a case of blackmail; it’s almost enough to make her want to stay…
But it is also September 1997, and Viola Hawkins, teen girl detective, is starting her second year of high school. She thought the biggest worries she’d have would be having last year’s hair and dating her best friend’s best friend, Nick Howell, but when scandals come a calling, young Viola cannot resist. Even when her erstwhile boyfriend starts sleuthing some supernatural mysteries of his own…
The memories of those days and the revived romances of the past give Sadie a little hope that she can start over again. But what Sadie doesn’t know is that the sinister events of the past are coming back to haunt her and the rest of Calydon. Sometimes in memory, as Sadie reflects on her hometown’s tangled web of unsolved mysteries, and sometimes literally, in the form of a pale young woman who haunts her dreams. Even as she realizes that coming home may be the death of her, Sadie Hawkins must discover who, or what, is the Girl in Question…
Join the teen girl detective and her adult counterpart in her first major case and what she hopes to be her last, in this the first volume of the Sadie Hawkins Mysteries.
So here it is — for your enjoyment — though I should note that only 1 of 2 images are included. I planned for these illustrations to be old-fashioned, quickly jotted things done only in pen and nib and in not-so-much detail. Instead, other stuff happened (you’ll see!). Anyway, back to the story at hand…
The greatest mysteries in life are often the simplest, Viola Sade Hawkins thought, staring at the photograph of her mother that she had kept close to her bedside since high school. A calm, intelligent woman with dark, thick eyebrows and full lips stared out from the glass and faded photo paper. Meanwhile, Sadie herself was finishing packing up her worldly possessions, with a few tears and a great deal of sneezes.
“I’m allergic to memories,” she liked to say to her friends in Bloomington, but the truth was that the dust stung her eyes, even if a few were the result of reflecting on her current situation. For the moment, Sadie was moving most of her belongings into a storage unit just outside Bloomington, Indiana. She had just graduated from her doctoral program in Folklore that May, and had then spent the rest of that month, June, and July biding her time and bidding her life of the last 7 years adieu.
Beyond this summer, Sadie had no real sense of the future.
She knew that she would have to return to properly move her belongings – she even had a hesitant plan to return in a few weeks and use the same company from whom she had rented a storage unit. In sorting through all her belongings and carefully packing them into boxes, though, Sadie had found herself turning again and again to the photograph of her mother, first in hesitation, not wanting to pack the image up until the last moment. It had always been like a ward, this image of Valeria Vega Castillo, dead the last, long 14 years. In the photograph, her mother seemed on the verge of saying something either profound or hilarious, a hint of a smile on her face. She had her hands on her hips, as if annoyed or amused by the person, her father, who was taking the picture – the motion was lost on Sadie, who only knew this was her mother in her late 20’s, shortly before her parents had made love on a beach in New Hampshire, conceiving a small life that would be born on July 7, 1982.
Now, Sadie shared a birthday with her mother, who had been born on the same day, twenty some years previously, but not much else. It was hard to share much with a ghost, a being of memory and loss. She could remember her mother’s laughter, still, but her voice was practically lost. She could only hesitantly invoke the sound of her, a deep, gentle voice – a laugh or a whisper, most often asking Sadie to be calm, to help clean the house. Both of her parents had had jobs back then, before the cancer ate its way through her mother’s lymph system. Before the tests and medications, the drug trials and multiple hospitalizations, and the final weeks of wondering – how long and how terrible would the end be?
In the end, it hadn’t been that hard. A few long days and a short embrace, and Valeria Vega Castillo, who would never take her husband and Sadie’s father’s name of Hawkins, had passed onto something else. In the years since, Sadie had wished and wished for dreams of her mother, but never had any message from the beyond. When she’d been only a slip of a girl, she’d watched a neighbor’s dog get hit by a truck, his life obliterated in a moment. Sobbing and wet with blood from carrying its remains into her family’s yard, Sadie had asked her mother what it meant, this sudden ending. Valeria had tried to explain life and death to her daughter, but Sadie had insisted that, should her mother perish, she promise to come back and tell her what death is. Despite the years in between that strange request and her mother’s agreement to do so, despite the many conversations they’d had about everyone moving on once Valeria passed, Sadie held onto the vow as if it had been a blood oath.
So far, in the many, many years since she’d felt her mother’s body go limp, her life ending in a bare moment of grief, nothing. No profound message. No vague dreams.
But the packing had been going fairly well. Sadie pushed her thoughts back to the task at hand. She had not been looking forward to this day and the tasks of getting everything packed into boxes, especially as the date of her flight back to her hometown of Calydon, Michigan had grown ever closer. Now, she had one last trip to drop off a few, final boxes at the storage unit before driving to Indianapolis to catch her plane into Detroit.
She looked at the last open box, with its strange mix of treasured and forgotten things, sitting on the ground by the front door. In the midst of cleaning and moving a few last pieces of furniture to the curb, she’d found an old Buffy the Vampire Slayer poster stuffed behind her dresser, several long-lost earrings on the floor while sweeping up the debris of her life in this house, and a few pairs of socks that somehow slipped into the back of the drawers that were built into one wall. Together, they represented the last, random remnants of what her bedroom in this house had been. They sat beside her dream journal, the tarot deck her best friend, Vidyun, had given her for her 20th birthday, her bedside lamp, and two statues of Durga that her ex-boyfriend Tim had brought back from India.
What did it all mean? Sadie tried to piece together some kind of message from this strange arrangement, a collage created by happenstance and forgetfulness. These were the last items left in the house that belonged to her – the rest were the property of her soon-to-be-former housemate, Rose Harker. Surely, their being the last meant something, she thought, but then Sadie stuffed the shoebox of light bulbs that she had gathered from her lamps into the box as well and put the lid on top. She picked the now relatively full box up and looked around the room.
The blinds on the three windows that lined the outer walls of the room were all up, like they rarely were while she had lived here. Sadie had even opened all of them to let some of the summer air in – Bloomington in May was far from cool and breezy, but it at least helped the room smell less like dust and moving. She looked at the nails she had left in the walls, the wood floor so recently swept, and then left, pulling the door closed behind her.
“Rose?” she called, almost certain that her housemate was not home. She had left early that morning, most likely to avoid the chaos of moving the last few loads of Sadie’s stuff. Rose had barely been around at all since the move had started, but Sadie oddly forgave her, knowing that her housemate generally detested moving. She probably shouldn’t be so kind, should probably hold it against her, but Rose was busy with other work and with her own dissertation. They had been in a combined program, but, despite Rose entering the program before her, Sadie had finished up her dissertation first – prompting an imbalance in their friendship that was barely worth mentioning. Yet that unstated imbalance had led to some awkward moments at parties, when they had both had a few too many drinks, and a general cooling off in their friendship.
So Sadie had not been surprised when Rose, probably her closest friend in the world at this point, had left early, avoiding rather than helping to deal with the move.
Pondering her inability to be angry, despite herself, Sadie walked down the carpeted stairs and into the front room of the house, a wide space where the wood futon she owned had been just yesterday. It had been one of the last things she’d moved, so that she could have something to sleep on. Ron had recommended that. Terrence Ronald Redmond was her other best friend, albeit also her ex-lover. He had no idea she was moving so soon – mostly because Sadie herself had lied to him about the date of her moving out. She’d wanted to surprise Ron at work, and she guessed that she would succeed. The only person in Calydon who knew she was coming home today was her father.
They’d actually talked briefly that morning, he pointing out that she should figure out where she would be moving later that summer rather than try to squeeze in a visit home. But Sadie needed the calm that being at home would hopefully bring before she could make any more life decisions. She was sick of them – deciding to pack up all her belongs, to put them in a storage unit while working where she should move to look for work, to leave Bloomington. To most likely give up on her professional career as a professor or researcher.
It doesn’t help that I feel like I completely fucked up my life, Sadie thought, realizing that she had been standing in the living room for a few minutes now. She looked down at the box, then around the living room and house. She turned and walked into the dining room and kitchen, as well as the laundry room at the very back of the house, with a door leading onto their back patio, checking to make sure she had not forgotten anything. Sadie stopped to stare at the fire pit, where she had spent many a Saturday evening with friends, drinking beer and telling stories, savoring the evenings as they passed. She would miss the yard, the pine trees that were like guards around their home, even if their needles covered so much of the would-be lawn and made everything smell of sap.
Her old self suddenly rushed back to her, a girl who had longed to live in a secluded cabin in the mountains of somewhere, pine trees gathered around her home like friends around a fire. She’d been a strange young woman – especially in high school. She’d quickly fashioned a reputation as a teen girl detective, mostly by taking advantage of her mom’s workplace and the resources that came from being the daughter of a private investigator. The girl she’d been had been sly, sassy, and taken way too many risks, generally just to uncover the truth about her friends’ problems or, every once in a while, help her mom solve a local mystery. The Sadie Hawkins of those years had been someone stronger, someone who raged like a thunderstorm in the summertime. The young woman who now stood in the back of her used-to-be-home felt somehow less whole in comparison, like a rainstorm that peters out too soon. Her life felt like it had built itself up into something wonderful, only to become a banal, boring thing.
Not even a storm really – nothing so important. Her life was more like a deep inhalation wasted when the body dies.
Sadie no longer respected herself, much less her lifestyle. Her degree was fairly useless – it seemed fairly likely that all she could do would be to apply to whatever jobs she could and maybe stop into a few local universities near Calydon. If that was what she wanted. Let’s face it, she thought, that’s my problem. Ever since completing her dissertation and defending it to her committee, Sadie simply didn’t know what to do with herself. She could literally move anywhere, and she had considered moving to a few cities just because she knew someone in each one: Chicago, Denver, Portland. Her best friend from college, Liz, was a dog groomer in Denver, her brother lived in Chicago, and a few of her friends from grad school had moved to Portland to look for work.
But she’d settled on Calydon, her home town, for a couple of reasons. For one, it was near several universities because it was geographically near to the East Lansing and Ann Arbor areas, where the University of Michigan and Michigan State were based. For another, she’d wanted to spend the summer in Michigan for a while now, and this seemed likely to be her one and only chance to choose where she would live, at least for a while. Last, her dad’s health had been less than stellar lately.
Leo Hawkins was relatively healthy for a man of sixty-one years. Except for his type 2 diabetes, which required him to watch his diet and exercise habits, he’d been fairly luck, especially among his circle of friends. It seemed like every other time she talked to her father on the phone, he would be talking about someone else’s funeral. But then, in the last year, he’d had a series of falls – one right after the other. In the fall, Leo had tripped on his porch and fractured a bone in his left ankle – then, shortly after healing up, he’d stumbled and broken his wrist at work, only to trip and fall again just before the holidays and sprain his other ankle. That had made Christmas a bit awkward, but spring brought the further inconvenience of his having what the doctors called a mini-stroke – something that had brought both Sadie and her brother Francesco home in a flash. Thankfully, neither lived far from home – Sadie just a five hour drive away and Franky a five hour train trip from Chicago to Ann Arbor. They’d worked together, but Sadie had less control over her schedule than Franky, a freelance graphic designer, and she’d had to rush back in time to prepare for the crunch of finals.
“Ugh, I just need to get out of here,” Sadie said to herself, pushing her memories of the past year to the back of her mind. She did not have enough time to molder over her troubles, much less the fact that she had told a fairly big lie to everyone in her life. Her Bloomington friends believed that she had gotten a fellowship to revise her dissertation into a book for the following academic year; her father and Michigan friends believed she was just visiting for a while before going on grant-funded fieldwork in the Upper Peninsula. Meanwhile, the only plan she actually had was to go home and try to work out what to do and where to go from here, though a road trip to the U.P. was not necessarily out of the question.
The truth was that she had no idea what she was doing. Sadie Hawkins did not have a home, really, so going back to her childhood home felt right. At the very least, she figured that she could catch up with some of the friends she’d been so bad about keeping in touch with while in graduate school, while simultaneously testing the job market in Michigan.
But, at the same time, going back because there was no other option felt like giving up. Like retreat. Even if it was a means to working out how to move forward.
So, Sadie had lied, and, standing on the doorway of her former home, she realized she would have to come clean fairly quickly. Her father would notice when she stayed more than the three days she’d told him she would be in Calydon, and her Bloomington friends, except perhaps for Rose, would certainly notice when she didn’t come back and ask for her help in moving stuff out of her storage unit.
“I’ll tell them on day 3 then,” Sadie resolved, mumbling to herself. Pulling her thoughts together, Sadie walked out of her former home, happy for now that her friends and family believed that she was already having success in her career, a career she was pondering giving up. After two years on the job market, and one year of stalling by pretending she had more dissertation revisions than she actually did, she was exhausted, disillusioned, and almost completely defeated. Now, she was taking the last spark of the fires inside of her, her passion, her love, her joy with life, and she was trying to start over in the last place that anyone would suspect: middle of nowhere, Michigan.
Sadie set down the very last box, shut and locked the front door, dropped the key in the mailbox, and then picked up the box and walked to the car she had rented the day before. She hadn’t needed a car much in graduate school, so she’d ended up driving it home and storing it in her dad’s garage in Calydon years ago. Reflecting again on her lies as she searched through her jeans pocket for the key, Sadie wasn’t sure what she would tell everyone when they figured out that she’d lied – she wasn’t really even sure that anyone would care. Rose had been her closest friend, and even she had made a point of not being around when Sadie really needed help getting out of dodge. Key in hand, she opened the back door of her car, put the box on the left side, which was thankfully fairly empty, and then got into the front herself.
As she started the car, Sadie considered the choices she had made for probably the hundredth time that week. She wished that she had done something else with her life, maybe even just picked up waitressing or bartending, as she’d once done in her last summer of undergrad at the University of Denver. She wished that her mother were still around, with her calm and her ability to accept the good and bad of life. She wished, more than anything, that she could have found a job as a professor either this year or the one before, teaching and doing everything she hated about being at a university, but getting paid and doing all the things she loved about research and teaching. She wanted her life to make sense, to fit into the logic of the world. To put it simply, Sadie Hawkins wanted to be a part of the world.
But she didn’t feel like she was. Her life didn’t fit into the logic of the world. Or, if it did, it was not a logic or a world that she very much cared for. So, turning to check for oncoming traffic and then pulling onto Washington Street, she waved goodbye to the many things she really did like about Bloomington. As soon as she got onto Walnut, she waved at each of her favorites, from the ice cream at the Chocolate Moose to the cocktails at The Rail. Sadie felt tears well in her eyes a little bit, thinking of all her friends and her good times in this town. But she had places to go, and hours to go before she could sleep in her now checked-in seat on the airplane to Detroit.
Sadie’s plane landed at 9 AM, just an hour and a half after she’d boarded at Indianapolis Airport. She’d barely managed to catch it, after dropping off the last few boxes in her storage unit and picking up the two bags she had packed for her trip. One contained the obvious: toiletries, a week’s worth of clothes, a few books related to her research just in case she needed them, and the groceries she hadn’t wanted to give up, including some amazing coffee beans and loose leaf teas. The other contained mementos of her mother – for some reason, Sadie had decided days ago that she would try to find out more about her mother’s youth from her dad. It was a strange instinct, but it seemed like a good distraction, something she’d been meaning to do for years. Picking up the bags, though, had been fairly quick – it was the traffic on the way to the airport that had tripped her up.
But Sadie had rushed through security, more than comfortable pulling off her shoes and taking out her laptop with ease, and then onto her plane. It had been stressful, but now, a plane ride that had rushed by as she had slept, Sadie was home.
She had caught a taxi from the airport, and on the way, all that she had been able to think about was spring. The red buds are out, she’d thought, feeling a surge of joy to see their fine, fuchsia petals. The forsythia, the ferns in their twirling glory, and the colorful swoops of birds in springtime. The world was alive, and it cheered Sadie for the first time in a while to see such life, such joy, such wonder. It felt like home, this gentle but sudden awakening to spring, to life, to home. She’d savored it on the ride from DTW to her father’s house just Southeast of Calydon, ignoring the cost of the cab ride – anyway, her father had promised to pay her back. He’d meant to be at the airport to meet her and take her out to lunch, but the way his schedule had worked out, he’d wound up overly busy and unable to make it. So, she’d taken the cab, and, except for the cost, the trip had been relatively easy.
After paying the driver, Sadie had gone inside, dropped off her stuff, and then gone and stood outside for a while, staying still enough that the birds wouldn’t feel threatened. They congregated around her dad’s bird feeder every day in the warmer months, and they’d gotten used to people being around, enough that, unless one got very close or loud, they would go about their business as if no one were around. And Sadie savored that sensation, the feeling that she was barely there, that she was no one, something that could not even disturb the birds in the trees and on the ground. Sadie had felt a great calm engulf her as she watched them gathering twigs and flying about, singing and flinging themselves through the air.
But then she remembered herself. Her plan for the day was to go bother Ron first thing, surprising him at work and injecting some much needed socializing into her day. Sadie walked over to the garage, where her car was waiting for her – her dad told her that he drove it on the weekends to keep it in good condition. She realized that she had left her Ford Focus here a little over three years ago – after making herself drive around Bloomington enough to make it worth the cost of maintaining it and the insurance. Now that she’d be driving it again, Sadie would have to get the insurance up to date – though she didn’t really want to think about the cost.
She walked up to the garage and then thought twice about getting in the car right away. Instead, she walked over to the stand of blue spruce and white pines that lined the West side of their property. When she had been in high school, they would occasionally find morel mushrooms pushing up through the carpet of pine needles, like jewels in sand. The memory of their buttery, sturdy flavor came back to her suddenly, and Sadie peered around beneath the pines in search of just one, small mushroom to cook up for later. The smell of them being cooked would bring back other memories, too, she knew. Of her mother singing and dancing while she cooked up such things as Sadie’s dreams were now made of – seeing as neither she nor her father were remotely talented in the kitchen. Sadie could make a mean stir-fry, while Leo generally left the cooking to the people who prepared frozen meals.
Sadie walked around the pines for a few minutes, savoring the scent of them, crisp and invigorating. But, seeing only more and more rusty-brown pine needles, she sighed and walked back toward the garage. She pushed the button on her key chain that activated the door and watched it roll up, revealing her car under a tarp and boxes of various things from the past – Franky’s high school trophies, boxes that Sadie had moved there after college, and even a few of her mom’s old dusty and tattered files. None of them cared enough to go through these boxes – and it hurt Sadie now only because they reminded her of her own boxes of belongings in Indiana. Would she return one day soon or years from now, or would she return at all? Would someone else have to go through her things, sorting trash from valuables?
Sadie pushed the thoughts from her mind and walked over to the car, pulling the musty tarp as she continued along the length of the car. She remembered it being turquoise, but in this light, she thought it was closer to a light blue than anything. Sadie walked around to the front and then turned to look back at the house.
“Did I lock the front door? Close any open windows? Turn off the stove?” she thought – shaking her head even as the list of things to remember came into her mind. She smiled and nodded to herself. She had indeed locked the front door, but having only been in the house for a few minutes, the other items on her normal check list for leaving the house were irrelevant, if not ridiculous. Sadie almost laughed at herself having become such a creature of routines.
“Routines will be the death of us all,” her mother had used to say. Valeria had never cared for the regularity and order of routines, tending instead towards spontaneity and risk-taking. Sadie could understand how her father and mother had fallen in love, he so gentle in his adventurousness and she so strong and willing to try anything once. She recognized that something had left her father’s world when his wife had died – but she had no idea how to return that vibrancy, that love. She knew it took time, that eventually Leo would find someone else to be with in that way, but she hoped it would happen soon. He’d been dating fairly regularly for years, but with few women who lasted very long. Usually, he would tell Sadie and Franky about someone just in time for him to dump her about a month later.
Sadie sighed. She wanted to make everyone happy – herself, her father, her brother, her friends, and all the people who had sacrificed something to help her on her way. Her mother, her ex-lovers, the friends that she had lost. It was a strange feeling that permeated her day-to-day existence lately, something between wanting to cease to exist and wanting to live a life that could live up to all the love she had received in her life.
“Names matter,” Sadie muttered to herself, a memory rushing back to her. She could see her mother standing in front of child-Sadie after school one day, even as her daughter sobbed. “Names matter,” Valeria had said, comforting her after a boy had pushed her down on the asphalt and called her a name. “Names matter, and lives matter, too,” her mother had said, or something like that, and “It’s all a matter of living on your own terms, making the choices only you can make, and remembering what really matters: friendship, kindness, justice.” Valeria had always been like that – taking the darkest moments or harshest words and turning it into a chance to reflect on the beauty of life, on the things that really matter.
Sadie tried to dredge up the details for these words, but could only remember that the boy had called her a name before shoving her. Or maybe it had been her, had she punched a boy? But it didn’t matter. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, still standing in the garage, looking at her old car. She would have to leave in the next ten minutes if she wanted to be sure that she could catch Ron without having to deal with any of the high-schoolers bustling about in-between classes.
Looking up one last time and taking a deep breath of pine-tinged air, Sadie unlocked and opened her old car, sat down and adjusted the mirrors, and then started it, driving down the driveway and towards Calydon only after she’d found a good mix to listen to. As the green of trees and springtime rushed by outside the car, she thought, briefly, that perhaps she could have a chance at making a little life in this great, big, hectic world.
“Or maybe not,” Sadie thought, “Either way, I have to keep trying. For my mom, for my friends, and for me.” She let the thought slip out of her mind as she drove, but it was enough to think it, however briefly.
TO BE CONTINUED in Chapter 2
What did you think? How do you find the story and the heroine so far? What would you do differently? And how about some good music mix suggestions for my Sadie Hawkins Mysteries Songlist? For any and all of the above, post something in the comments, please!