February 7, 2017

v.i.Prose: “Mile Point Road” by Nathan Oates

Nathan Oates photo credit Vera Nieuwenhuis (2017)

Nathan Oates’s “Mile Point Road” brings to light the fear that lies in the dark corners of our imaginations. In a narrative paying homage to Stephen King’s The Shining, Oates guides readers through the looming lake house of Mile Point Road and explores the boundaries of paranoia.

Nathan Oates has had work reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories (2008, 2012) and is the author of a story collection, The Empty House (Willow Springs Editions 2014), that won the 2012 Spokane Prize for short fiction.

 

 

The lake house, when they finally arrived after the drive from New York that took almost twice as long as the computer had promised, looked nothing like what Matt had been imagining all summer. Instead of a little wooden cottage with creaking floors and a porch on the water, they pulled up in front of a three-story stone mansion. A dozen windows quivered with the shadows of the huge trees that rose above the gabled roof. Beyond the house was an enormous yard, and Matt could see, if he leaned out the window, the view across the water to the mountains, patterning blue into the distance.

“Well, here we are. Just your run-of-the-mill cottage,” Matt said. “You can always count on Grandpa to be discreet. Wouldn’t want to go overboard or anything.”

Sarah, whose parents had rented this place and invited them to come up for the week, flashed him a look of warning. Her parents were arriving tomorrow, so Matt had one day of freedom with just his family, maybe even some quiet.

“Out, out, out!” Cyrus screamed from the back seat, and Lily joined him, bucking in her booster seat like a caged animal.

The dark, low-ceilinged rooms through which the kids raced howling were crammed with worn furniture. Crumbling mass-market thrillers leaned against each other on dusty shelves. Mediocre paintings of covered bridges and lake views cluttered the downstairs walls, and faded photographs lined the upstairs hallway: the kids in one photo looked like the parents in others. From what Matt could tell, the family had a lot of redheads and the smug self-congratulation of old money. The photos were old, the colors faded to sepia hues, as if, like the books and furniture, they hadn’t been updated since the ’80s.

Though it wasn’t Matt’s style, he had to admit the house was nice, or would’ve been if not for the construction site next door. On the tip of the point, a new house was being built. Pickups bristling with ladders raced down the gravel road, and the air was filled with buzzing saws, thudding nail guns, slamming doors. Matt wasn’t paying for the house but still felt they’d been taken advantage of, even lied to. You shouldn’t go on vacation and end up in a work zone.

But what the hell. He hadn’t come all that way to get annoyed. There’d been enough to worry about in New York. At the last meeting in June, the principal had announced there was to be an internal investigation over the summer to resolve, once and for all, the conflicts that were undermining the children’s education. Everyone knew what that meant: they were looking for a way around his tenure to fire him. Matt was on indefinite leave, but Angela, the other eleventh grade English teacher, had filled him on the gossip.

Two hours of soccer, climbing the old trees and swimming in the cold water wore the kids out, and at 3:30 Lily fell asleep in her bunk bed. She was six, hadn’t napped for years and would be up half the night, but it was worth the break. Cyrus, who was nine and too old to nap, agreed to stay in the room as long as he got to play his PSP.

Behind the mirror in the bathroom he found a tube of antibiotic cream. He’d cut his hand while carrying their suitcases and Lily’s booster seat, and in the rush of leaving the house, he hadn’t cleaned it properly. A few hours later, and already it was throbbing. The cut was between his knuckles, and a Band-Aid didn’t fit, so he just smeared on cream and went into the hall. That was when he noticed the attic door.

He assumed it was a closet, but when he turned the knob he was faced with stairs going almost straight up. The top step was lined with citronella candles in green buckets, and above the candles was a white wall into which names had been carved.

Ben, Billy, Jane, Evers, the names piled on top of each other, and there were others whose edges had smudged into illegibility. Ben was so big it took up almost the entire left half of the wall, and others, like Evers, were tiny but carved deep. What kind of name was Evers? A last name? That wasn’t the name of the family that owned the house; they were the Blunts. When he’d called about the keys, the owner, Joan, had told him how back in the ’40s her grandfather had been cruising by on a boat when he’d seen the house for the first time. That same day he drove around until he found the house, and he left a note in the mailbox offering to buy it. The owner had called and said sure. So that would make the names in the wall at least seventy years old. Now he saw other markings, faded and barely legible, as if they’d been scrubbed at. The first letter was H. Then an E and an L. The next letter wasn’t clear, maybe if he climbed up. It could be a G. So maybe Helga, or something like that.

Probably Joan hadn’t painted over the names because she thought they were charming, but that wasn’t how they looked to Matt. Something about the wobble in each letter suggested fear, even panic. He could see a little boy up there, a pocketknife in in his fist, biting his lower lip hard enough to reopen the cut in his lip. The others—Jane, Billy, Helga—huddled against the far wall, arms and legs sheened with sweat, listening to the man crashing through the house below looking for them. Helga, a little doll-faced blonde, opened her mouth, but another child clapped a hand over her face, muffling the scream.

Slamming the attic door, he went downstairs to the kitchen and took a beer out to one of the Adirondack chairs in the yard. The sun, the lap of the water on rocks, the view of the mountains, all this helped gradually erode the image of those kids in the attic. But if he closed his eyes, there they were again, gathering new details: Billy’s skinny arm was in a splint; Jane, the oldest, had a black eye and a wad of cotton coming loose from her ear, crusty with blood. This sort of thing, these images that wouldn’t stop, used to happen to him all the time when he was a kid. He’d wake screaming in bed, and even curled up between his parents he’d see things—short men with leathery skin, in overalls, smiling at him from the doorway.

He was about to get up for another beer when an old man and a little boy came down the dock of the neighboring house, carrying fishing poles. The grandfather baited their lines, then helped the boy cast. Matt could hear the hiss of the reel, the plunk of the sinkers hitting the water. Again and again they cast, catching nothing. Then suddenly the old man jerked around, as if someone had touched him. Matt sat up and waved. The old man didn’t respond, just stared; then he helped the boy reel in and dragged the kid down the dock, glancing once more at Matt before they disappeared into the trees.

 

 

Growling woke him. He jerked in his seat, knocking his half-full beer into the grass. The growling paused and then started again, louder.

A black dog, a Lab mixed with something shorter, maybe chow, crouched near Matt’s chair. The animal’s lips quivered above yellowed teeth and purple, mottled gums.

“Get out of here,” Matt shouted.

The dog lowered its shoulders as if about to jump, barked once, then went back to growling.

“Get,” Matt said, sitting up straight, grabbing his fallen bottle by the neck.

With a jerk the dog moved toward him, snapping the air. Matt flinched, his chair tottered, he nearly fell, and then he scrambled up, squeezing the bottle.

“Get the fuck out,” he shouted, feinting at the dog, which lowered its belly almost to the ground, snarling. “Get out, you fucking dog.”

Showing fear was the worst thing, so he lunged at the dog, swinging his beer bottle, the end almost clipping the dog’s nose, and the animal hopped back, then trotted across the yard and behind a black pickup over at the construction site.

He should go over there, find those fucking workers, tell them to keep their fucking stupid dog tied up, but as he crossed the yard the adrenaline rush faded, and he felt shaky and weak. When he passed the stone patio, Sarah called out to him, and he turned gratefully and slid open the screen door.

His family was gathered around the little kitchen table playing Monopoly.

“Hey, there,” Sarah said. “Want to join us?”

“We just started,” Cyrus said. “You can go next, if you want.”

“What were you doing?” Sarah asked, nodding at the beer he still held by its neck.

“Nothing,” he said. Better not to mention the dog; obviously they hadn’t heard anything, and it’d only worry them. “I fell asleep.”

“I think I know why,” she said, smiling. “You better get me one of those.”

After settling at the table with the beers, he rolled and landed on Vermont Avenue.

“That’s mine,” Lily shouted, bouncing in her chair. “You owe me. Pay up, Daddy.”

“Fleeced by my own kids,” he said, fishing out the floppy paper bills.

“That’s always how it goes,” Sarah said, sipping her beer. “My roll.”

As they took their turns he kept looking at the yard for the dog, but he didn’t see it. The pickup was gone, though he hadn’t heard it pull out. Plastic sheeting had been nailed up over the back of the house, where a wall would eventually go. The new house was gaudy, huge, with terraces all along the front, jutting out over the water. The Blunts had this perfectly comfortable house, but still they built another. And in so doing were ruining his vacation.

On his next roll he bought New Jersey Avenue.

“Yuck,” his daughter said. “That one stinks.”

“Only the northern part,” Matt said, tapping the bottom of the panel. “This part’s pretty nice.”

“No way, you can have it,” Lily said.

“Right, well, when I put up my big red hotel, you better hope you don’t land there. We’re gonna gouge you fancy Brooklynites.”

“No way,” Lily said, laughing. “I’m not staying in that stinky state, no way.”

“Just you wait,” Matt said, leaning across the table. “I’m gonna get you.”

“Let’s keep this moving,” Sarah said, opening the fridge. For another beer, he hoped, as the dice clattered across the board.

 

 

Storms rolled in over the mountains as they grilled burgers and hot dogs, and by the time they sat down to eat, the screened porch was getting soaked by a blowing rain. He ran outside to close the awnings, fighting the sodden ropes, and he got about half of them down before a white flare went off in the corner of his eye and then a thunderclap knocked the side of his head. Hair stood up on his neck, his arms; even his eyebrows seemed to shiver, and he fumbled open the door as another bolt struck out on the water.

“You didn’t get them all?” Sarah said.

“Better a wet porch than a dead husband is how I think the saying goes,” he said, a puddle spreading around him on the wood floor. Gusts of wind blew in through the screen door, and suddenly he was freezing.

“I suppose,” Sarah said, kissing him on the cheek.

He said he was going to go up and take a shower to warm up.

“Great. I’ll have the maid do these,” Sarah said, gesturing at the sink of dishes.

“I’ll get them, after.”

“I’m kidding, honey, go clean up.”

“Yeah, go shower, ’cause you stink, Daddy!” his daughter shouted, trying, he knew, to continue the joke about New Jersey, but her voice, after an argument at dinner with her brother, was angry, even cruel.

“Watch your tone,” Matt said, climbing the stairs.

“I’m joking!” Lily screamed, sounding on the verge of tears. Lightning struck, and the thunder blotted out whatever it was she was whining, thank god.

He took a quick shower—worried about the lightning and the water—and was still cold as he pulled on his clothes. As he walked back down the hall, the house lit up with blue light, shook violently with the thunder, and the lights went out.

Something grabbed him around the chest and squeezed the air out of his lungs. His legs went weak as a spike of ice pressed against his spine. He wanted to scream, to curl up into a ball on the floor, to weep. Then the fear passed, and he was breathing hard, but fine, obviously. Thank god no one had been there to see it. Not that they’d have seen anything—it was pitch black.

The blue haze of his iPhone screen was replaced by a bright white circle as he hit the flashlight app, and he went down the stairs and through the living room, clipping his thigh against the glass-topped table on which, if they’d come here a few years earlier, Lily would have cracked open her head. Limping, he found his family in the living room, huddled on the biggest of the three mismatched couches.

“Our food’s going to spoil,” he said.

“Not if we don’t open the fridge,” Sarah said.

“And how exactly am I expected to survive the night without more beer?”

“That’s a true crisis, but fear not, my love. There’s some in the cooler next to the sink.”

The rooms lit up with blue flashes as he went into the kitchen and gathered up beers, a plastic flamethrower and candles, which the house was full of, meaning the power outage wasn’t an unusual occurrence, another thing they might have been warned about. The kids lit candles until Sarah told them to stop before they burned down the house.

They tried to play Monopoly again, but when Cyrus landed on Boardwalk and Park Place on the first three times around, Lily started to pout. When she said she was going to quit, Cyrus said, “Great. So her properties all go back to the bank, and since I’m on Kentucky, I’m going to buy that.”

Lily screamed that Kentucky was hers.

Oh, yeah? Why was that?

Shut up, stupid, she was quitting.

Fine, but quitters never won.

Kentucky was hers! Give it back!

Sarah calmed them down and took them up to bed. Matt went around blowing out candles because Sarah was right, they’d lit too many, and one had left a faint black streak on the wallpaper. He moved a lamp over to block it, remembering that the owner had demanded a two thousand-dollar security deposit.

Just as he settled on the couch, Sarah came back downstairs.

“That was fast,” he said. “Thanks for getting them to bed.”

“Well, if you can get up early with them tomorrow.”

“Deal,” he said.

She stood in front of the couch, looking down at him.

“So, uh, what now?” he said.

She peeled her shirt off and reached back, the slim, hard muscles in her arms flexing as she unsnapped her bra. He wanted to get up, kiss her stomach, her nipples, but he didn’t move, watching as she unsnapped her skirt, stepped out of it, and then slipped off her underwear, something he’d seen her do thousands of times, and which each time he saw it struck him as pure elegance. In the flickering light she looked exactly as she had when they’d first met, when she was twenty-five and the most beautiful woman he’d ever touched, ever kissed, much less had sex with.

Pressing her hands onto his thighs, she knelt in front of him and unbuckled his belt. He reached out, touched the swell of her breast, ran his fingers along her nipple, felt it harden, heard her breath quicken. “Up,” she said, tugging at his jeans, and when he arched his back she slid them down to his knees; then, pressing her whole warm body against his bare thighs, she took him in her mouth.

In the huge black television mounted to the wall above the hearth he could see their reflection, his pale knees, his wife’s smooth back between them, her head, moving up and down. As waves of pleasure ran up through his stomach and into his shoulders, he noticed that in the reflection his wife’s hair didn’t look blond, but red. And it was curlier, maybe from the humidity. On her back there was a mole he’d never seen before. She pulled off with a loud smack and, stroking his dick, turned and looked up at the television. In that second, probably because his eyes were starting to blur as his orgasm approached, she didn’t look like his wife at all.

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the pillow, gasping, her hair tickling his stomach, his legs, her fingers cupping his balls and before he could stop himself, he came, shaking, crying out. As his body was still shuddering, she said, “You better get hard again, mister,” then she straddled him on the couch. He tried to look up at her, but with her hair framing her face— hair that again looked red—he couldn’t see much, only her lips, which looked swollen, fuller, as if she’d been biting them. “You owe me,” she whispered, then bit his ear, and he felt himself swelling as if he was twenty-five again as well, as if he could just keep doing this all night.

 

 

Slicked with sweat and still breathing hard, she climbed off on the couch and said she was going to take a shower.

“In the dark?”

“I’m pretty sure water still flows in the dark,” she said, making her way, still naked, up the stairs.

Tugging up his jeans, he debated whether he should get another beer. In the end he told himself he was on vacation, so why not? As he was opening the cooler he saw a bottle on a low shelf. Tullamore Dew, an Irish whiskey he loved. The owner had said to use whatever they could find. Surely she hadn’t meant this, but tough shit. He poured some into a short glass, more than he’d meant to, almost four fingers. Back on the couch, with his family sleeping upstairs, a light rain hissing against the windows, he was immediately bored and anxious. The two remaining candles cast a dim, wavering light, and he kept thinking he saw someone coming into the room. He drained the last half of the whiskey in a gulp that made his eyes water.

At the top of the stairs he stopped and pointed the phone at the attic door. In the bright white light, he could see all the knobs and grains of the wood. Beneath the deadbolt, the wood was different, cut in an oval shape, just like that of the lock above. But the wood had been filled in, a different grade and color. Farther down, there was another hole where a lock had obviously been, this one filled in with a darker wood, sloppily sealed with glue. He felt the ridge of wood around the filled-in patches, then noticed, at the top of the door, two holes plugged with glue. On the frame of the wall were matching holes, for a bolt, or maybe a chain. Down at the base of the door were marks where another bolt had been. Five locks for one door.

He touched the doorknob lightly, not quite closing his fingers around it. Then he felt it jiggle, as if someone on the other side had grabbed it at the same time. For a second he was too scared to move. Then he felt the knob turn to the right, and he clutched it, held it firm. The knob turned harder than before, grinding against his palm. Whatever was on the other side was trying to get out. Dropping his phone, he pushed his shoulder into the door and, with his ear against the wood, heard something, heavy breathing, or a low voice, a groan. The knob rattled, turning back the other way, but he held it steady, the metal pressing into his palm, and then, suddenly, the knob went slack. Unable to let go of the door, he found he was holding his breath. Slowly he let it out through his nose. When the air was gone he stepped back, watching the knob. It didn’t move. Maybe it hadn’t at all. Maybe he’d just been squeezing it too hard, had convinced himself there was resistance from the other side. He should just open the door and show himself there was nothing there. Instead he glanced down the hall—the family photos along the wall glimmering—to the room where his kids slept, then went into the bedroom where his wife was asleep, facing away from him toward the windows that were blue with the dark outside.

 

 

Grainy from a sleepless night—he’d heard sounds from the attic, thuds, and then what he’d thought was the crying of a little girl, but when he checked on Lily, she was sound asleep—Matt drank cup after cup of coffee out on the patio, watching the kids kick a soccer ball around the yard. They stopped playing to examine something in the grass. Bugs, or maybe a pile of dog shit. He’d found four heaps this morning, from the black dog, he assumed. He’d picked up the shit with a grocery bag that turned out to be perforated, and it had gotten all over his fingers.

Sarah was inside talking with her mother, finding out when his in-laws might be arriving that afternoon. She’d spent the morning working in the bedroom on the new diet book she was ghost-writing, and he’d been on kid duty despite his hangover. Six more days. That was all he had to get through in this house. Sure, it was nice, in a snooty, old-money kind of way, but there was something about the house that was bad. Not the attic-door thing. That had been in his head, put there by the whiskey, probably. Unless, he thought with a snort, someone was hiding up in the attic and no one had happened to notice except him. Which was ridiculous. He’d been suggestible: exhausted from the drive, riled up by that goddamn dog, the storm, the power outage, the unexpected sex, then too much to drink.

Last night, at the attic door, he’d felt the way he had that February morning when his real trouble had started, when he’d suddenly lost control of his life, which until then had been blessed and usually happy. He’d arrived at school early and had gone down into the basement, looking for the supplies that should’ve been delivered to his room weeks before. He’d been digging through boxes for at least ten minutes before he noticed the boys. They were huddled in a corner with their backs to him. He’d shouted, told them to get out of there, and they’d turned around, slowly, almost lazily. He didn’t recognize them. That was something he’d say later: they were strangers; he’d never seen them before in his life. And not only that, but with their tight leather jackets, their spiky, dyed blond hair, their pale, blue-ringed eyes, they didn’t look like the other kids in the school, who were mostly from upper-middle-class families around the city. Those kids could have been homeless, might have been junkies. He’d wanted to run, but instead told them to get their asses upstairs now, or they’d be suspended. Then they’d moved toward him, laughing. They’d grabbed him, his arms, the front of his shirt, buttons popping off, laughing as they did it. Even just a little while afterward, he didn’t remember swinging his arm, didn’t remember his fist cracking across the boy’s mouth. Cuts on his knuckles proved he’d done it, but his mind had just snipped out that piece of time and dropped it down a deep hole.

The workmen were banging away at the new house, and one of them shouted, “Oh, fuck me, fucking shit!” Matt wanted to go over and say something about the dog, but knew he wouldn’t. Then a black BMW pulled down the drive, and Joan, the owner of the house, got out. Without looking over, she walked to the new house and ducked under the plastic sheeting.

He’d found a fuse box in the kitchen, so their food in the fridge had survived, but the other side of the house was still dark, so there must be a second box somewhere.

“Hello?” he called, crossing the gravel drive. The new house looked even bigger up close. The ceilings were almost twenty feet high, and though the place was only half done and none of the finishing was yet in place, its extravagance was obvious.

He stepped onto the unfinished floors and went into a room without a wall, so you saw nothing but water, as if you could just tumble into the lake.

“Excuse me?” a woman said. She was silhouetted by the sun off the water. Beside her stood a man with a huge wrench resting up on one shoulder.

“Joan?” Matt said. “Hi. I’m Matt. We’re over there,” he gestured at the plastic sheeting. “In the house.”

“Oh,” she said, glancing at the man beside her, who nodded and walked away.

“I wanted to let you know,” Matt started, but faltered. She looked angry, or annoyed. Or afraid. “The power. It went out last night. In the storm.”

“OK,” she said, as if this had nothing to do with her.

“So, I found a fuse box for one part of the house, but the rest is still out.”

“It’s in the cellar.” She crossed her arms over her chest, her frown deepening.

“The fuse box is in the cellar?”

“Yep.”

“Where’s the cellar?”

“Under the kitchen. There’s a door in the floor.”

He’d done his best to hold down his annoyance, but now it came up thick. They were paying her a fortune. Not him, of course, his father-in-law, but still, his family.

“Can you show me?”

Before answering, she looked over at the old house and seemed to shiver.

“Sorry,” she said. “I really need to go.”

“But it’ll just take a second.”

“Sorry, I’ve got a meeting,” she said, ducking under the plastic. When he pulled the sheet back, she was running to her car.

“It’s just down the ladder,” she shouted to him. “On your right. You won’t miss it. Call if you have any trouble.”

But I do have trouble, he wanted to say. I have trouble right fucking now. She pulled out so fast that a cloud of gray dust blew over into the yard where his children played.

 

 

The trap door was under the rug in front of the sink. The latch had rusted, and it creaked when he hauled it up, then fell back with a thud. He half hoped it had damaged the floorboards.

A rotting gray ladder whose rungs bent under his weight went down to a rough concrete floor. The fuse box was right there, covered with cobwebs. Reaching between the strands he pulled open the panel. Something moved behind him, a flutter in the corner of his eye.

Slowly, his eyes adjusted while he tried to steady his breath. Tangled up in the far corner were a bunch of old tools: disintegrating rope, hoes and shovels and, hanging from nails on the wall, a hammer, a rusty saw, wooden-handled screwdrivers. Everything was coated with cobwebs. But there was nothing else.

Turning back to the fuse box, he flipped the switches and climbed up, breathing hard as he slammed the door down. His family was outside, swimming off the rocks. He went upstairs to get his suit but stopped first in the kids’ room to make sure the lights worked.

As he was turning off the lamp he noticed half-a-dozen swords, or maybe they were long knives, piled up on the mantel of the bricked-up fireplace. How had he not seen these when he’d brought up their bags? Cyrus could have picked these up, would’ve thought they were cool and probably ended up cutting himself or accidentally stabbing his sister. They were fucking swords, just sitting out in the open. In the goddamn kids’ room.

He picked up one of the weapons, but he couldn’t get the blade out of the shriveled leather sheath no matter how hard he pulled. The next he tried slid out an inch, enough to see the blade was rusted. Except, when he held it up to the light, the red was too bright to be rust. He smelled the crisp, metallic scent and touched the blade, felt the wetness, a slick of red on his finger.

Jamming the sword back into the sheath, he put it back on the mantel and walked down to his room, picked up the phone, but he didn’t know Joan’s number, had it in his email, and when he checked his phone, he couldn’t get any service. What could he do, anyway? Inform her she was a goddamn lunatic, that her house wasn’t a luxury spot for a New England vacation, as advertised, but rather a fucking death trap?

Through the windows he could hear his family, shouting and laughing in the water. Sarah was helping Lily—who still wore water wings—flail about. They shouted to him to come in, and it wasn’t until he was wading, shivering from the cold waves lapping up against his crotch, that he realized he hadn’t put the knives away. He would when he got out. Taking a deep breath, he threw himself into the cold black water.

 

 

Wrapped in towels, they sat on the Adirondack chairs, warming in the sun.

“How far do you think that is?” Matt said, pointing across the water to the green hills.

“Are you kidding?” Sarah said.

“What?”

“Honey, the road is called Mile Point Road. So I’m pretty sure that’s about a mile.”

“Right,” he said as his kids laughed.

A few minutes later he said, “Do you think I could make it?”

“Across?”

“Yeah, across.” He thought he could. Three years ago he’d done a triathlon, and if he could swim the Hudson, this would be nothing.

“Honestly, honey, no, I don’t,” Sarah said.

“And you’d have to go there and then back,” Cyrus said, sounding worried. “Cause you’d have to get back, too.”

“I could swim there, rest, swim back,” he said. “And I’ll wear flippers.”

“I hope you’re joking,” Sarah said.

“Not joking,” he said, standing up, letting his towel fall. “I’m going to try it.”

“Daddy,” Lily whined, “Mommy said no.”

“Come on, honey,” Sarah said. “Don’t be silly.”

He ignored them, went into the house and found the flippers. On the rocks in front of the seats where his family were all frowning at him, he wet his feet and put them on.

“What about the boats?” his wife said, pointing out at the empty water.

“They’ll see me,” he said. They might not, of course, but it wasn’t exactly Sixth Avenue.

He balanced himself on the slippery rocks. “If I get tired, I’ll turn back,” he said, smiling to let them know everything was fine, and before they could protest he dove out, kicking hard and pulling himself with a steady crawl. A hundred feet out, he turned and waved. All three of them were standing up, wrapped in their towels.

The initial thrill passed in under ten minutes and was replaced by a burn that ran through his shoulders. His legs felt heavy, as if bands of lead were strapped to his ankles. But he wasn’t racing, and it felt good to be out in the water, to be doing something. As he floated for a minute to catch his breath, he realized it mostly felt good to be away from the house. The farther away, the better. To never see it again would be best of all.

He switched to a breaststroke, not letting himself stop until he was completely out of breath, his muscles aching. Gasping, he turned onto his back. As far as he could tell, with the water slopping into his eyes, he wasn’t even halfway. Once he caught his breath, he treaded water and looked back at the house, expecting to see his family watching, but the red and yellow chairs were empty. Drops ran into his eyes, and he squinted at the house. The windows were full of glare and shadows, but then he saw something. A face was looking out of the upstairs window, pressed up against the glass. He waved but then realized that wasn’t the kids’ room. Their room faced the other way, and this one was higher. It was a window in the attic, a little square he hadn’t noticed. The face, a pale smudge, peered out. Then another face pushed in beside the first. Cyrus and Lily must’ve gone up there while their mother made lunch.

The faces stayed in the window, and he waved, lifting an arm out of the water. Then suddenly they were gone. He thought he could see something moving, away from the window, could see the smudges of their noses on the glass, though that wasn’t possible, of course.

Matt’s heart was pounding, the strength gone from his legs, the flippers suddenly heavy, pulling him down. He took a deep breath, but as he did, the wake of a motor boat washed into his mouth, and he choked, sank beneath the surface, came up sputtering and wheezing, flailing his arms to keep his head up.

Forcing his head out of the water, he scanned the other windows. Through the screen of the sunroom he saw a man’s shape, a hulking silhouette, wide shoulders stooped. The man looked out at the water, then moved into the kitchen.

Matt tried to shout to Sarah, but he was already so exhausted it came out as a wheeze. His lungs felt scraped out, and his arms were so loose he could barely cut through the water. Every twenty feet he had to stop and rest, roll over and pull wildly at the water.

“Sarah,” he shouted as he hauled himself from the water. On the rocks he lost his footing, scraped his knee, then threw himself up onto the grass. He kicked off the flippers and got to his feet.

“Sarah,” he screamed, louder this time, “Cyrus, Lily!” Blood pounded in his ears, so even if they’d been screaming, he might not have heard.

He ran past the chair with his towel still curled into it and up to the screen door. “Sarah,” he shouted, stumbling into the kitchen. “Honey, where are you?”

A man’s laugh came from the next room, and Matt looked at the knife rack, then decided he didn’t have time and ran into the living room.

His father-in-law, Eric, was on the couch, legs crossed, drinking a beer. The man looked disconcertingly like Sarah, with a feminine mouth and the same blue eyes, and a shock of blond hair that defied his sixty-five years. Tanned and relaxed, he looked like he’d been on vacation for weeks. Fox News blared from the television on the wall.

“Matthew,” Eric said, gesturing with his beer. “You’re alive after all.”

Matt’s breath was still coming so fast he could only nod. Then he heard his wife’s voice. They were on the porch, the kids curled up against their grandma.

“I heard you were trying to swim across the lake,” Eric said.

Matt nodded and said, “Yeah.”

Everything was fine. His family was fine.

“I thought I’d cornered the market on stupid man tricks, but apparently you’re going to give me a run, huh?” Eric said, smiling. Then added, “Get yourself a beer.”

“OK,” Matt said, but he didn’t move.

“You all right? You’re bleeding,” Eric said.

“Sure, fine,” Matt said, looking down at the gash on his knee.

Matt went back into the kitchen, pressed a paper towel against the scrape, then got a beer and took it back to the living room. He sat on the edge of a wooden chair and asked how the drive had been.

“Too damn long,” Eric said, frowning at the television, on which two talking heads shouted. “But we made it. And I’ve got some good news.”

“Oh, yeah?” The man Matt had seen in the window was Eric, he now realized. Not a murderer. Not the man who’d locked those children in the attic, then come for them one by one, dragging them down the stairs while the others huddled deeper into the shadows, pressing their little faces to the window, hoping a stranger might save them.

“I was able to extend us. We have this place until a week from Saturday.”

“Oh,” Matt said. He started shivering. The bottle in his hand felt like a block of ice.

“The next people canceled, apparently. But their loss is our gain.”

“Great,” Matt said, trying to keep his jaw from trembling.

“It’s a nice place, isn’t it?” his father-in-law said, his tone hard, maybe because he’d expected excitement, or at least gratitude.

“Of course. It’s beautiful,” Matt said.

“Well, refill time,” Eric said, walking past Matt, who was now shaking uncontrollably, his teeth rattling together, his shoulders twitching.

Out on the porch his kids started shouting, and their feet pounded against the floor, but sitting there, it felt to Matt like the house was letting out a contented shake, knowing now that it had him for good.

 

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