Sneak Peek! Mailboat IV: Chapter 1

Warning! The following excerpt from Mailboat IV contains spoilers. Catch up on the rest of the series now! 


Rain trickled along the black visor of my service hat in two glistening streams that pooled in the center, grew, thought about falling, then fell. One by one, the droplets struck my hands, clasped in front of me, and soaked into my white gloves. I ran my fingers along the brim, stopping the never-ending flow for a moment, and focused my attention on the young woman under the black canopy singing “Amazing Grace” in crystal tones while strumming a worn guitar.

The casket—closed—was white with gilded scroll work. It dazzled even in the rain, as if the angels had ripped down the pearly gates and torn up the streets of gold to build it. As if nothing less would do for their beloved, fallen saint. Bill Gallagher. Our chaplain. The man who had saved hundreds of lives by throwing himself over a boy and his bomb. I’d never be able to erase the image of carnage. I still couldn’t believe what Bill had done. In the microcosm of time between him spotting the bomber and him flinging himself over the boy, he’d made up his mind. Thrown aside life and everything it had to offer. Sacrificed himself for his town and the people he loved.

I hoped the angels had lined his casket with their own feathers to cradle his broken body. I hoped they greeted him with harps and a crown of glory.

He deserved it.

I flicked my head to shake off another droplet and turned my eyes to Bill’s family, standing under the black canopy. His wife Peggy. His three children by birth. His four children by adoption. The seven of them grown with partners and kids of their own, an army of grandchildren.

Two kids stood center front, Peggy’s hands on their shoulders. A boy and a girl, maybe six or seven. They were Bill and Peggy’s last two foster children. With the tragedy that had struck her life, Peggy could have easily picked up the phone and asked social services to re-home them. No sooner asked than done, the kids would have been out of her house within twenty-four hours. To re-home them so quickly, the kids  probably would have been split up. Given the unpredictable path of foster care, they might never have seen each other again.

But clearly Peggy hadn’t called. There they stood with the family as if they were blood-born and not someone else’s forgotten children. Bill wouldn’t have had it any other way. Once a child entered under his roof, that child was forever a Gallagher, in spirit if not in name.

The young woman with the guitar strummed the final chord. Her voice trailed to silence. Rain thrummed on the canopy and the coffin. Chief Wade Erickson stepped up to a microphone and raised it several inches to match his height. His navy blue uniform sported five gold stars, signifying him as the highest ranking official in the Lake Geneva Police Department. His eyes traversed the crowd—friends and family in black, police officers in navy blue.

“We are gathered here to lay to rest our brother, Bill Gallagher, a beloved pastor, chaplain, friend—” his eyes traveled to the family “—father, grandfather, and husband.”

Peggy smiled with soulful gratitude and hugged the children closer.

Wade turned again to the crowd, his jaw working emptily for a moment. “But beyond that, Bill was… the bravest man I have ever had the honor of knowing.” His eyes went hollow, haunted. As if the shock of Bill’s sacrifice hit him as hard as it did all of us. Wade soldiered past the look of emptiness, found his words again. “He was a man so full of love for his fellow creatures, whoever they may be, that he willingly laid down his life for them, with no regard for his own.”

The chief’s open vulnerability triggered my own. A lump rose in my throat, choking off my windpipe. My memory flashed back to one of my last conversations with Bill. Relentless love. That’s what we’d talked about, this insane concept he’d introduced me to. A love so resolute, nothing could force it to back down. Not fear, not rejection, not even a boy with a bomb.

“Am I capable of relentless love?” I’d asked that night.

“We all are,” Bill had replied. “If we want to be.”

And the very next day, I’d gone and decided I wasn’t. Like a coward, I’d started filling out apps for other departments. Other jobs I could work when my temp patrolman’s job in Lake Geneva ended. Places far away from Bailey Johnson, the foster girl I cared about beyond explanation. From Monica Steele, my ex, whom I still loved with all my heart.

But not with relentless love.

That had been before the bomb. Before the fear of losing Bailey and Monica had become horrifyingly real. Bill’s selfless act of love for complete strangers shamed me from beyond the grave. Was I too weak and afraid to love Bailey and Monica as relentlessly as he had loved this town?

Bill had also challenged me to quit dwelling on myself, on my lead-weighted feelings of worthlessness and shame. In a nutshell, he told me to focus on getting shit done. Being there for Bailey despite my fears and probable incompetence. Figuring out what it really was Monica needed, then either providing it for her or getting the hell out of her way so she could get it done herself.

I fixed my eyes on the casket and drew a shaky breath. Bill had had a way of shedding a spotlight on things that made them so simple, the path laser clear. Was there any hope I could hang onto that light, even without him around to make sure the battery was fully charged?

I heard his voice in my head. Yes, you can, Ryan. If you want to.

“Let’s pray,” Wade Erickson said. “Heavenly Father…”

I tipped my chin toward my clasped hands—but not before glancing down the military-straight row of my brothers and sisters in blue. Monica Steele stood at the far end next to her partner, Detective Sergeant Stan Lehman. She looked amazing in her tailored, navy blue dress uniform, her gold insignia and badge shining, her glossy mahogany hair twisted in a tight bun at the base of her neck, below her service cap. She was a solid wall of poise and determination—but also feminine elegance—a lethal combination of elements a man would be crazy to mess with.

That’s what I’d always loved about her. Her strength. Her will. This woman could take care of herself. And yet, once upon a time, she had permitted me into her life. To love her. To stand beside her. To see her vulnerable side. To be her husband. Her lover. She set me on fire like no one else ever had or ever would.

“…in Jesus’ name,” Wade concluded, “Amen.” And I realized I’d forgotten to pray to anyone but the goddess at the end of the row.

“Amen,” the crowd muttered.

“Amen,” I joined in.

Feet stirred, but for a moment, no one spoke, no one moved. Finally, Peggy Gallagher stepped toward the casket. Laid a single red rose on the lid. Laid her arm across her entombed husband. Whispered. Wept. Then walked away.

Her children and grandchildren were next, laying their roses on top of Peggy’s until they’d built a pyramid of red and green. Brothers and sisters hugged each other. Cried.

Last of all, Bill’s final two fosters children stepped forward. With down-turned faces, they hesitated. But Peggy smiled and encouraged them forward. Standing on tiptoe, the boy nestled something orange, red, and fuzzy amidst the flowers. When he stepped away, I saw what it was. The knitted lion hat Bill had worn while playing with the children. Perhaps the one item these kids most associated with him. With his love. His relentless love.

Don’t let me down, Ryan, his voice whispered through my head again. You can do this.

As the crowd began to break up, re-arrange itself, converse in hushed tones, I looked toward Monica. Lehman had left. She was talking with Steph Buchanan, one of the telecommunicators. Without me really telling them to, my feet carried me toward Monica—as if they’d known all along what to do and had just been waiting for my head and my fears to get out of the way.


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The American Orphan Train Movement, the History of Foster Care, and How It Was Never Designed for the Children

Currently, I’m hammering away at Mailboat IV, trying to get it ready for the August 1st release and August 20-22 book signing tour. This week, I devoted some time to reviewing what I know about the foster care system in the United States, since our main character Bailey, is a foster kid.

Guys, it’s kind of like watching a car wreck and not being able to look away.

On the one hand, you have a lot of beautiful people who are opening their homes, hearts, and lives to kids who aren’t their own. You also have hard-working case workers, therapists, and CASAs (Court Appointed Special Advocates–lawyers for children) who are doing amazing things to help kids, and their stories are inspiring. You also find stories of adoption that are straight-up tear-jerkers.

But just hop over to YouTube and type in “foster care story.” Warning: only do this if you think you can handle the myriad tales of abuse and neglect that happen to children in the foster care system. (And for a perspective on Southeast Wisconsin, here’s an amazing 25-minute documentary that’s a real eye-opener.)

This week, I went on a mission to understand how abuse within foster care is happening–when the system itself exists to save children from neglectful and abusive situations. And it finally dawned on me to look into the history of foster care and adoption. (I always find a little historical context goes a long way in helping to understand the present.)

That’s when I learned just how closely the orphan trains of the 19th and early 20th century were connected to modern-day foster care. In fact, they’re considered the foundation of today’s foster care system.

What are the orphan trains? I’m glad you asked. I hear a lot of you like history. I do to. And I can’t fit the half of this research into my next novel, so here it is:

The Orphan Train Movement

If you’re not familiar with the orphan trains, they’re a fascinating bit of history–and there’s an entire genre of historical fiction dedicated to them!In a nutshell, a minister in New York City named Charles Loring Brace noted that there were some 30,000 children living in the streets–children he feared would grow up to become thieves and prostitutes without intervention.

Meanwhile, railroads and settlement were expanding across the continent. Families moving west needed help on their new farms and ranches. Brace had a solution.

He loaded children aboard trains and sent them West. The kids lined up on the platforms, tallest to shortest, and farmers and townsfolk could take their pick.

The orphan train program was a smash success. Brace expanded into other cities, and between the 1850s and 1920s sent some 250,000 children west.

Once I understood that modern-day foster care was formed out of the orphan train movement, I understood why abuse is so rampant in foster care.

It has its roots in child labor.

Foster Care Was Never for the Children

Not every child who rode the orphan train ended up in a loving home. The reason the orphan train was so popular was because it provided free labor.This was the 19th century. Children, like women and African-Americans, were considered property. Kids were to be seen and not heard. They had no rights. Even natural-born children were expected to be dutiful and obedient, nothing more.

So it isn’t surprising that many kids who took the orphan train later reported that their adoptive parents beat them, overworked them, and generally treated them differently from their own children. Volunteers within the communities were supposed to make sure this didn’t happen, but they were disincentivized from doing so, because where would the children go, if not here?

In perspective, the orphan train existed mainly for the benefit of adults, not kids. It kept unsightly urchins off city streets, prevented homeless kids from becoming adult criminals, and provided labor out West.

And that’s the way the system has always worked–for the adults, not the kids. In some Western cultures in the Middle Ages, it was common for nobles to foster each other’s children, as a means of sealing bonds between them, similar to arranged marriages. The children, of course, had no say in the matter. I’ve heard other tales (more research required) of children of the poor being indentured to the rich. Supposedly, this better provided for the children’s needs–but it was, in fact, both child labor and slave labor.

So these are the shoulders on which the modern-day foster care system is built. To this day, we find the poor, the addicted, and the abused inconvenient. We funnel them into prisons. And what do we do with the kids? Give them to strangers. It’s the only other option.

Child labor has thankfully been outlawed. But that also means there is no great incentive for every-day people to take in foster children. Today, there is a massive shortage of homes for these kids.

That’s why abusive homes–homes like Bud’s in the Mailboat story–manage to slip in. Case workers are overloaded and they’re desperate to keep the homes they already have. Like their 19th-century predecessors, they’re disincentivized to investigate allegations of abuse because these kids have to go somewhere.

Meanwhile, kids today are still disenfranchised. If a child says their foster parent is abusive–and the foster parent says they’re not–the adult is believed, not the child.

How Do We Help the Kids?

I find the entire situation infuriating. My boyfriend Charles can tell you that I storm around our apartment raving after a day spent researching foster care. Fiction about orphan kids is incredibly popular. We love them on the page. But in real life? They don’t get a chance. Their reality is completely unknown and misunderstood. Foster kids are criminalized, as if their situation were their own fault. Meanwhile, we believe that someone else is taking care of the problem.But to a still-large extent, they aren’t.

One of the things that foster care workers constantly ask for is awareness.

Another is more homes. Kids would be trapped in abusive placements less often if case workers simply had more options to choose from.

Meanwhile, I find myself wondering what we can do about the front-end. How can we help families who are struggling with poverty, addiction, and abuse? How can we support them before their household becomes too dangerous for kids to grow up in? As a girl who’s dad died when I was very young, I can attest to how strong the bond is between parent and child, even when the child “never knew” their parent. In my opinion, if we can help prevent kids from leaving their homes in the first place, that would be an ideal outcome.

And that, I think, funnels directly into the issue that’s ultimately closest to my heart: Mental health awareness. So many of the problems I’ve listed above–poverty, addiction, and abuse–stem directly from untreated mental health issues. I think one way to save our kids is to finally acknowledge that so much of our behavior–and misbehavior–stems from our mental health, and that not taking care of ourselves can result in the neglect or abuse of our kids. If we can reform our social systems, our judiciary systems, and our police systems to acknowledge the keystone of mental health, I believe this could be a better world, for adults and children.

My ideas are all half-formed and require piles of more research, including conversations with people who are actually in the trenches. But I hope something in here is helpful to someone. One of my goals as an author is just to get people thinking. To start a conversation. Because conversations are the beginning of change.

Have you ever been involved in foster care or adoption, in any way? I’d be happy to hear about your experiences, good or bad. I’m open to learning.

If not, I hope my little walk through history and modern-day foster care was enlightening and can spark conversations and ideas between you and those you know.

~ Danielle

All Bailey wanted was a family of her own. Instead, she found a body at the end of a pier… 

Staying Curious

2021-01-20 Staying Curios

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This blog post is going live during Black History Month 2021. Last year saw a great deal of social unrest and the rekindling of the Black Lives Matter protests. By coincidence, the book I’m currently writing (Mailboat IV) features a person of color in a major role. (Not a black person, but a member of a minority group which also suffers discrimination, and so the parallels were hard for me to ignore.) 

With all these events coming together, my thoughts turn to the problem of racial discrimination in my country. The unrest, demonstrations, and riots we saw in the past year struck me very hard. And so, I’ve gone on a mission to try to sort out my thoughts and feelings about racial discrimination.

I write positively about police in my novels. I have friends who work in law enforcement. And I also have friends who are people of color.

As protests around the country turned to riots, my stomach churned. I literally felt as if I were sitting in the corner of a room, watching my friends having a screaming match.

Understanding racism, and sorting out my own thoughts and feelings on the matter, may be a life-long pursuit. But I wanted to jot down my thoughts so far, and share them in hopes it’ll help someone else on their own journey.

Why Do People of Color Suffer So Much Police Violence?

After Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014, it came to light that there was no national database tracking lethal shootings by police. The Washington Post went about to rectify that problem, and you can see their ongoing project here: Fatal Force.

You can see in their findings that, while more white people have died overall, people of color have died at a disproportionate rate.

“[Black Americans] account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans.” ~ Fatal Force, by The Washington Post

I’ll admit, beyond looking at the numbers, I haven’t yet researched the question of why this is happening. It’s something I do plan to educate myself about.

But one likely root of racial tension is feelings of “other” and “them versus us,” both in terms of “they are against us” and “they are not one of us.”

And for that, I think I have at least one answer:


Stay Curious

I have always been an intensely curious person–especially when it comes to people who are different from me. I grew up in an extremely homogenous environment, but instead of getting comfortable with sameness, I became curious about different-ness.

Your skin is a different color than mine. I want to learn more about you.

You speak with an accent. I want to know where you’re from and learn about your culture.

You wear a gun and a uniform and a bullet-proof vest. What on earth is that like?

You date someone of the same sex. I want to watch your relationship and see how it’s different from–and the same as–my relationship with my boyfriend.

You were assigned male at birth, but now you’ve come out as female. I want to watch your transition and see how you interact with life in a new way.

You grew up in a religion much different from mine. I want to understand what you believe and how it affects the way you live.

Your political views aren’t the same as mine. I want to try to understand where you’re coming from.

I have to say, curiosity this vast has been a great boon as an author. So long as I stay curious and humble and ask questions, I can create a vast array of characters.

And by staying curious, I get to meet all kinds of people–so that my fiction keeps benefiting the variety of my relationships. The more people I meet for research purposes, the more people I count as my friends, and thus the more diverse my circle of acquaintances.

Stop Talking; Start Listening

Like anyone, I sometimes see something different from what I’m used to and I want to reject it out of hand. It’s just too unfamiliar. Maybe I’ve even got notions already swimming around in my head about what this person is supposed to be like, because of some narrative I’ve heard from… somewhere.

This, of course, is called bias, and the experts claim we all have it, whether we realize it or not.

But then I breathe and remind myself that we’re all just people. I remind myself not to judge until I’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. I remind myself to stay curious instead of shutting people out.

Whether I’m spending time with a cop or with a person of color or literally anyone else, I’ve found that accepting them just the way they are helps them open up and be themselves. I feel absolutely privileged when people who were strangers a moment ago start telling me their life stories. Start trusting me with thoughts they would only tell a close friend. I’ve had it happen again and again, with people of literally every description. I’ve seen people’s hearts, and that matters to me.

Only once you truly understand people, on both sides of a given conflict, can you identify the problems that may exist. Only once you truly understand those problems can you fix them. Until then, it’s only a shouting match.

Be quiet. Listen. Understand. Stay curious. You’ll probably find you have far more in common with “different” people than you thought. I keep returning to the words of a very dear friend of mine, an African-American woman. We were discussing racism, and her comment was simply this: “At the end of the day, people are pretty much the same.”

Recommended Reading

As I write this, I’m reading a book called 13 Days in Ferguson. The author is Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. He is also an African-American. During the Ferguson riots of 2014, the governor of Missouri put Captain Johnson in charge of returning peace to the city.

As I read his memoir, I find that Captain Johnson models exactly what I’m talking about when I say to stay curious. When people were yelling in the streets, he was reaching out to as many of them as he could. He showed them he was listening. And they responded. All they wanted was for someone to hear them out.

If you’re looking for a riveting read that straddles both sides of the line–the experience of a black man, and the experience of a cop–this is a fantastic book. You can shop for it here on Amazon.

Over to You

The comments are open to discussion, but I want to remind you to be kind. (Inappropriate comments will be deleted!) This is a space for coming together as brothers and sisters. To practice that curiosity and openness I was talking about.

As another suggestion, go ahead and leave a prayer, a positive intention, or words of kindness. Let’s spread a little love and inspiration.

Mailboat IV, Releasing August 1, 2021, features a person of color as a key character. I had such a great time getting to know someone from that community in order to write this character as best I could.