Vovó said the First People were formed by God like dough and placed into an oven. Some, He removed early, and these were pale and nearly raw. Others, like my grandmother and I, had more time in the fire.
I imagined God’s oven as I roasted in a rental car, leaving the city. There were state parks and roadside stands selling berries; and beyond, vast fields with metal wings of irrigation pivots spread across their lengths. Under the wings were shadows shaped like people. They held baskets and shifted in line with the crops.
In my underwear was a liner as thin as a receipt. I’d graduated from bulky overnight pads and no longer had to examine the clots—black centers with fluttering, pink edges—that swam in the toilet bowl. Were they the size of a golf ball? A lemon? If yes, I’d need to return to the clinic.
The highway ended as a forest rose in a dark canopy. My phone lost its signal. Rocks clawed the bottom of the car. A wooden sign read Susquehanna.
“You’ll come to my summer cabin,” Meredith Flint had told me a week before, in her office. “You’ll be my guest.” The invitation was a prelude, I believed, to my promotion at the firm.
The road smoothed. On one side, a couple of tennis courts sat empty. On the other, cars were parked in a row under the trees: SUVs with boat hitches as big as baby heads, a mud-splattered Tesla. As soon as I pulled in beside them, Meredith appeared in my rearview mirror, as if she’d been watching for my arrival. She waved, her khakis frayed, her T-shirt tight, her ponytail spilling through the back of a baseball cap. Her arms and legs were dotted with sunspots, but her face was pink and shining.
“Don’t you look fancy,” she said as I stepped from the car.
I’d bought resort wear for the weekend—billowy pants and draped shirts in soft linen. In my closet, I had only suits and sweats.
“Oh, that’s all right,” Meredith said, as if I’d apologized. She put her arm around my shoulders and pointed to my keys. “Leave those. Our groundskeeper will bring your bag.”
The trees were as tall as buildings. A wooded trail opened to a wide lawn and a tidy string of white cabins. All were perched on a rock ledge overlooking a lake. Its water was so blue as to seem unreal, as if vats of dye had been dumped there.
Meredith smiled. “Gorgeous, right? It used to be a glacier.”
She took me near the ledge, where wildflowers grew and a gravel path cut in front of the cabins.
“We call this ‘walking the Line,’ ” she said, leading me down the path, which terminated at the clubhouse in one direction and dense forest in the other.
There were twelve cabins for the twelve founding families who’d built Susquehanna two hundred years before. Each cabin had a name branded into the wood: Mason, Guillot, Fisher, Skinner, Flint, Newcomb, Nettleton, Emerson, Snow, Champney, Rodgers, and Abbot.
“We call the Abbots the ‘Newbies,’ ” said Meredith.
“Is this their first summer?”
She laughed. “Their sixtieth. The founding family died out. The council wasn’t going to replace them—they were just going to burn the cabin down—but the Abbots stepped up and were allowed to join.”
A man and woman sat on the Newbies’ porch, sipping lemonade. “My guest!” Meredith called, pointing at me. They waved eagerly.
“You’ll meet everyone at dinner,” she said. “We eat in the clubhouse at six sharp. They ring the bell three times, so you have fair warning. Oh, and we dress for dinner,” she said, glancing at me. “Nothing fancy, but no swimsuits. In my father’s day, the men had to wear neckties on the boats! Thank God that’s changed.”
Near the end of the Line was a cabin with crooked shutters. Its paint had grayed.
“That’s Irene’s,” Meredith whispered. “She’s as blind as a bat with cataracts, but it’s no excuse. The council’s too easy on her.”
At the Flint cabin, a man dressed head to toe in khaki placed my bag on the porch. A cap covered his black hair, leaving his face in shadow.
“Thank you, Jorge!” Meredith said. “This is Beatriz, my shining star.”
His eyes crinkled at the edges, as if we’d exchanged a silent joke.
“Some of the other families want more staff, but that would take away from the experience,” she said after he’d left. “The whole point of being here is to simplify! But it makes poor Jorge’s job harder. The caretaker before him lost his marbles in winter—drove his truck onto the lake and fell through the ice. They found him frozen at the bottom. But he was a townie.”
“A local. They call us ‘fudgies,’ which is silly. We hardly set foot in town, and never to buy fudge or any of that tourist junk. When I
was growing up, everyone who worked here was from town. But it’s changed now, with meth and all that. Jorge’s from . . . Honduras? Ecuador?” She stared expectantly, as if I had the answer. “Well, he’s my hero.”
Meredith’s city house was all windows and light, with the meticulousness of a department store display. I’d imagined Susquehanna would reflect the same exacting glamour, the same excess masked by restraint. Yet the cabin’s stubborn old-fashionedness—with its sloped floors, its mismatched furniture draped in nubby throws—was a disappointment.
I would stay upstairs, in the bedroom beside her teenage daughter Brittany’s. Meredith also had an eight-year-old son named Teddy. Just after he was born, she’d argued a motion at trial and, during breaks, pumped breast milk that her associate put on dry ice and FedExed back to her nanny. Fellow associates whispered this story to interns and first-years; it was lore, and Meredith an idol. By the time she’d invited me to Susquehanna, I’d clocked upward of three thousand billable hours and taken more than two hundred depositions, trapping my witnesses in windowless rooms and repeating seemingly benign questions in hopes of steering all outcomes in her favor. I did the research, wrote the briefs, and positioned Meredith in every case
for success. I was like a battery: hidden and indispensable.
I pulled my dead phone from my pocket and searched for an outlet.
Meredith smiled. “There’s no point, remember?”
She’d emailed the conditions of Susquehanna before I’d arrived: there was plumbing and electricity but no AC or TV, no cell service or Internet. The only working phone was the rotary landline at the clubhouse. We live simply, she wrote. Nothing ever changes.
She led me to the porch and poured us wine in ruby glasses.
“Originally, no alcohol was allowed,” she said. “But now we can drink as long as it’s in colored glasses.”
“So many rules,” I said.
“Traditions,” Meredith corrected.
Around my eyes, I felt a light squeeze, like a child pressing the sides of a ball. I took a deep breath. My headaches had been with me since forever; I knew their beginnings well. It was vital that I stave this one off, so I asked Meredith for a glass of ice water and sipped slowly.
Vovó said my headaches were a consequence of the Evil Eye. My grandmother had many wild beliefs: never go to sleep with wet hair, never mix mango with milk, never eat pork if you have an open wound. Yet she was most vigilant against the Evil Eye because, she said, the people who cast this curse do so unwittingly—it’s an act by their shadow selves. They see a vibrant orchid, desire it, and the next day its leaves are shriveled and brown. Or they envy the cuteness of a pet, and soon the pet is sick. The Evil Eye’s power comes from wanting a thing and hating themselves for it. And so it was someone’s chance longing that had cursed my fine brain with such pain that I vomit and lock myself inside dark rooms.
And in those dark rooms, the agony is so great that I feel as if I’ve left my body, as if a part of me has broken off and wandered away. I tried to explain this to a physician after a series of inconclusive CT scans. He nodded and asked, Have you tried yoga? But Vovó always understood. In the depths of my suffering, she would sit by my bed and whisper, Come back, Bia! Come back, amor!
At Susquehanna, I didn’t have Vovó to return me to myself. I pretended to drink wine as Teddy Flint, freckled and stern, walked onto the porch with a black cat in his arms.
“My love!” Meredith cried.
I winced, my fingers fluttering to my temples. The glass shattered, and the cat darted.
“You scared Pesky away,” Teddy complained.
In the distance, a bell rang. Meredith ignored the mess and held out her hand, as if asking for a dance. “Time to show you off!”
The child squeezed my eyes tighter.
The clubhouse was more barn than dining hall, with wooden rafters and plank walls. Twelve tables were covered in white cloths and arranged in rows.
“That’s ours, back there,” Meredith said.
Each Susquehanna family had a table. None ever changed position. Meals were on a strict schedule: breakfast at eight, lunch at noon, dinner at six, no exceptions. A buffet held chafing dishes as deep as sinks. At each place setting was a salad of iceberg lettuce and shriveled tomatoes, as if we were patients in a hospital.
On the clubhouse’s widest, tallest wall was a collection of framed photographs—one for every summer—starting in sepia and changing to black and white, then color. Each photo captured a group, fair-haired and smiling, clustered together by height and age, adults in back, children and elderly up front. Jorge stood beside the photographs like a sentinel: arms crossed, eyes scanning the crowd.
The room rang with chatter. Grandparents held wiggling children in their laps. Parents congregated in laughing clutches, their skin burned red and teeth polished white, forgotten smears of sunblock on necks and shoulders. There were clannish gestures of affection: hands settling on the smalls of backs, heads nodding intently, fingers playful grasping elbows. At a nearby table, a shriveled woman in black sunglasses watched me.
“Old Irene,” Teddy whispered. “She’s a witch.”
Fans circled furiously but didn’t dispel the heat. The liner between my legs was bunched and wet. I imagined blood blooming across my new pants, and chastised myself for neglecting to change the pad after the long drive. Spotting is normal for a few weeks, the clinic nurse had reassured me in my post-sedative haze.
My head pounded. I hoped food might help. A parade of Susquehannans stopped before us.
“A new face,” a woman said. “How lovely.”
“Now you’re in on our little heaven!” said another.
A barrel-chested man in his seventies leaned on the Flint table. His gray eyes fixed on mine. “If I had a lawyer who looked like you, I’d get myself into trouble just so you could get me out of it.”
“Paw Paw,” Meredith replied, shaking her head.
He punched my arm. “Mer tells us you’re a real gunner. Got a good work ethic.”
“I have to be careful or they’ll make her share partner and toss me out,” Meredith said.
The vise around my skull turned. “They’d never do that.”
Paw Paw grinned. “A real spitfire.”
The dinner bell chimed a third time. Paw Paw strolled back to his family’s table.
“He’s the club president,” Meredith whispered. “He approves guests.”
Teenagers in matching polo shirts bounced across the floor, filling water glasses and dropping baskets of bread on tables. Meredith’s daughter, Brittany, served us.
She was all long limbs and flowing hair—not moody or cutting, as I’d expected a teenager would be, trapped at Susquehanna without Internet or a phone. Instead, Brittany gave me a pleasant hello and kissed Meredith’s cheek. The kiss was quick, as if having a mother within reach was as natural as breathing.
“After you turn thirteen, you have to wait tables at the clubhouse every night until you’re in college,” Meredith said. “Training for the real world.”
During law school, I’d worked doubles as a cocktail waitress. In my last year, Vovó was diagnosed with cancer in her breast, which spread to her liver. Bills for chemo sessions and surgeries piled up. Every day, there were more, then calls from collection agencies and offers of debt consolidation. I seized what seemed at the time a lifeline—a job at a corporate firm—and the money flowed out as Vovó shriveled like an old fruit. The day she died, I was taking a deposition for Meredith. As I watched Brittany Flint bob around the clubhouse, doling out ice water with a smile, I thought how carefree she seemed, floating through the world like a child’s balloon, beloved and empty. Certainly no diner at Susquehanna would dare call her exotic and slip a hand up her shorts and—when rebuffed—tell her to go back where she came from.
The vise turned once more. My skull cracked, a web of pain reverberating along the fissures. The pitcher in Brittany’s hand tilted. Sparks of light bloomed in the periphery of my vision. I gripped the side of my chair, the wood as smooth as glass, and felt the gentlest, easiest tug. The pitcher fell. Shards skittered across the floor. Her face registered surprise, then anguish. One hand cradled the other. Blood spotted her shorts.
Susquehannans gasped. Chatter stopped.
“Butterfingers,” Teddy said.
Meredith rushed from our table.
Across the room, the kitchen doors swung open, and Jorge strode to the girl’s side, a first aid kit under his arm. A gust of heat fluttered our tablecloth. A woman followed closely behind him, carrying a broom and dustpan, her thick, dark hair corralled under a net, though some curls had escaped. She caught sight of me and, for an instant, held my gaze as if in recognition, as if we might have known each other once, somewhere far from here. Then she cleaned up the mess.
Within minutes, the incident was forgotten. The woman disappeared back into the kitchen, and Jorge returned to his post. Voices rose and spilled into laughter. The teenage servers dispersed to their family tables and tucked into their own meals. Brittany ate slowly, careful with her bandaged hand.
Through it all, only Old Irene had kept her hidden eyes aimed firmly in my direction.
The vise released me. Suddenly ravenous, I didn’t care that my chicken was rubbery, my baked potato dry. For dessert, there was Jell-O, cut into quivering, red cubes. I ate two bowlfuls.
After dinner, I walked with Meredith down the Line, the sun bobbing at the horizon. The path was patchy, rocks scattered into the grass. A pink bucket floated in the lake. A wet towel lay coiled on the dock. Children darted in and out of the dark forest, screaming names I couldn’t decipher.
Meredith smiled. “Another day in paradise.”
That night, I dreamt of the department store where my grandmother had worked as a cleaner. Summer days, when school was out and I couldn’t bear to sit alone in our hot apartment, Vovó would take me to the store. Like her, I never made trouble, so the manager allowed me to stay. In the employee area was a vast metal wall of lockers, all square and blue and holding vital contents of the workers’ lives. If we arrived early enough, Vovó would sneak me onto the empty sales floor. The mannequins were faceless and as white as chalk, perched on tiptoe. Everywhere were plush chairs, as if the kind of shopping done there required rest and reflection. As a girl, I wanted to live in such a place.
In my dream, the store was a maze of glass cases, all vacant. A mannequin looked down, her emotions a blank sheet. I crouched, hiding. Something was moving along the floor, something without feet. It shifted and swept over the veined marble, searching for me. Though I couldn’t see it, there was a terrible familiarity to my pursuer. My stomach twisted in a cramp, like the flex of a tiny fist.
I woke breathless. Between my legs, a fluid leaked, warm and thick. My liner was soaked through, and Meredith Flint’s flowered sheets stained red. Quickly, I crept downstairs and stole the kitchen sponge. After stripping the bed, I scrubbed the blossoming spot in the bathroom sink. A bird cried, alerting others to sunrise. I scrubbed harder. When the red faded to pink, I draped the sheet near a window to dry and changed clothes—putting on fresh underwear and a thicker pad.
Outside, a mist hung over the lake. A gardener raked yesterday’s errant gravel off the grass. Jorge collected abandoned hula-hoops and bikes. On the pebbled beach were two women, their black hair tied back. One gathered crumpled napkins from the shore. The other arranged folding chairs in a neat line near the water. As they worked, their laughter rose to greet me.
Every year on my birthday, after we lit the candles on my cake, we lit another in front of my mother’s photograph. She’d been a tiny girl, too young to have a child, and I’d been a massive baby. My life extinguished hers.
And so I became Vovó’s second chance to raise a girl, and she decided to do it in a better place. As soon as my mother was in the ground, we left Brazil for the United States, where I grew into a shadow of her, with her outline but none of her substance. There was in me, my grandmother lamented, something foreign and unruly. I wrote in schoolbooks, talked back to my teachers, stole Barbies from a girl down the street, slapped a boy who said I talked like a real American. My mother, Vovó insisted, would never have acted so brazenly. If she’d lived, maybe she’d be laughing on a beach, picking up trash.
I found myself at the end of the Line, blocked by trees and the shabby Skinner cabin. Old Irene sat on her porch, surveying Susquehanna from behind her dark glasses. She lifted her nose and sniffed the air.
“I know you’re there. Come on over,” she called.
As I climbed her front steps, she took my wrist in her withered hand. “Can you swim?”
She let go. “You’ll pass the test, then.”
“The Rope. Everyone has to know how to swim.”
“I don’t need a test.”
“Everything’s a test for us.”
I stared at her impenetrable lenses. Could she even see me?
People look at me and decide they know my story. Really, they know only the story I’ve created, diligently and with unending practice, like preparation for a trial. Brazil was a place in Vovó’s stories; this country is the one I know. English is the language I perfected. My childish rebellions ended when people began to praise me for my impeccable speech, my pathological studying, my quiet drive. If there were selves inside me that wanted to scream, to punch, to smoke, dance, paint, sing, or experience the kind of joy that welcomed the Evil Eye, I couldn’t risk being those girls. I had to structure my mind like the lockers in Vovó’s department store, each holding a version of me that could never exist.
“Stay close to the buoys,” Irene whispered. “Everyone comes down to watch, but they can’t see if you hold on to the rope for a second or two. It’s what I did, centuries ago, during my test.”
“Thank you, Ms. Skinner.”
“Rozenberg. My husband was Skinner. People here never stop reminding me of that. How’s Brittany Flint’s hand?”
“That pitcher breaking was the most entertainment we’ve had since the Newcomb boys flipped a jeep.” Her jaw jutted forward. Two thick, white hairs curled from her chin. “I had this feeling last night of a wave. It grew and grew until it hit the Flint girl, and then she dropped the pitcher.”
I recalled the footless creature of my dream.
“The lake’s choppy,” Irene said. “Brace yourself.”
Motorboats gleamed, their names painted across their sterns: Shaken Knot Stern, Carpe Ski-em. A teenager sat in a plastic chair on the dock’s edge, a lifeguard’s rescue tube at her feet. On the dock’s other side was open water. A rope threaded through blue buoys, extending into the distance, and seeming to terminate at a large, red one. I shivered in my swimsuit.
I hadn’t worn a liner or a pad, worried either might unstick and bob up in my wake. The heavy spotting had subsided, but I knew it could suddenly return; and if I bled during the swim, at least it would disappear into the lake. I needed to slip under the surface.
After breakfast, every Susquehanna family had ambled down to the beach, where they now sat, full-bellied and expectant. Waves slapped the dock. Farther out, boats zoomed past. The blue buoys rocked in the chop.
Earlier, at Meredith’s cabin, I’d tried to make a compelling argument: I could swim well and didn’t need a test to prove it. It isn’t a big deal, Meredith had countered. Little kids do it all the time.
I stared at the water, blue but murky, alive in a way a swimming pool could never be. The lifeguard’s whistle blew. I jumped.
The cold compressed my lungs. I broke the surface and gasped. From the dock came laughter. Little swells nudged and pushed, as if I were caught in a great crowd.
The red buoy seemed impossibly far away. I kicked and barreled toward it. The current tugged me in wild directions, like a fish on a line. I heard a clicking noise and realized it was my own teeth, chattering.
In the clinic’s recovery room, the nurse had offered a cup of water, but I was shivering so violently it all spilled and dripped down my arm. It’s the sedation, she’d said cheerfully. You’ll warm up! The procedure took only fifteen minutes—dilation, mild sedation, the deep sucking of a small vacuum tool, my middle swirling down a drain—yet I lingered in observation for an hour afterward. The next day, I could return to work. That’s why I’d opted for in-clinic rather than pills, which were less invasive but longer-acting, stretching out the inevitable. And it was inevitable. Like the Rope, there was the illusion of choice—I could take a stand, dig in my heels—but the consequences of such actions made choice itself laughable.
The final buoy loomed before me. I smacked its side and turned, moving ploddingly through the icy water, losing form. I thought of Meredith, watching. Did she want me to succeed, or would it make a better story if I failed, and she, being charitable and good, granted me a reprieve?
Success has a thousand mothers, Vovó would say. Failure is an orphan.
As during my worst headaches, my ears rang. My body felt unoccupied. Slowly, I escaped the me confined in that cold lake and opened the door to another cool place. A place where my strokes grasped and pulled and crushed, removing everything essential and letting it fall and shatter around me.
When I finally reached the dock, shuddering uncontrollably, I nearly slipped from the ladder. The lifeguard threw a towel over my shoulders. Susquehanna families milled about, disappointed, an audience promised a spectacle but delivered a bore.
“Well, isn’t that a relief,” Meredith said. “Now we can enjoy ourselves.”
Meredith sped across the lake, the boat jumping over waves and crashing through troughs. I’d changed into dry clothes and wrapped myself in a beach blanket but couldn’t shake the chill.
When we returned to Susquehanna, the pebbled shore was empty. The cabins sat on
the ledge in a straight, white row, like a set of teeth. Near them, on the clubhouse porch, a clump of Susquehannans had gathered, their pastel backs to the water.
“Something’s wrong,” Meredith said.
Approaching the porch, we saw, in the center of the confusion, a policeman. Paw Paw, hands on hips, spoke with the officer. Jorge was there, too, alongside a couple of other staff: the man I’d seen cleaning the Line, the woman from the kitchen. Unlike the Susquehannans, they were quiet.
“What’s happened?” Meredith asked.
A woman holding a baby replied. “Someone broke into the kitchen.”
“Pulled all the food out of the fridges,” a man added. “Stomped on everything. Made
a real mess. Smashed up some plates, too.”
Meredith’s eyes grew wide. “Who?”
“We don’t know. We were all watching the Rope,” the woman said, then looked at me. I felt the soft, insistent jab of guilt. But I’d been in the water; everyone had seen me there.
The officer glanced at the throng. “You keep the buildings open?”
“We don’t use locks,” Paw Paw answered. “Never have.”
“And everyone was on the beach? Even staff?”
“Sure!” Paw Paw said. “Jorge and the kitchen folks were taking a break outside, watching the Rope, too. I saw them.”
“What about the kids?” the officer asked.
Paw Paw’s eyes narrowed. “What about them?”
“Do any like to play pranks?”
The Susquehannans murmured and shifted.
“Our kids wouldn’t do this,” Paw Paw hissed, his voice low. “And our hired people have worked here for years with zero problems. This was an outside job—some townie stunt.”
The police officer’s jaw clenched. He called staff inside for interviews. A woman beside me gripped Meredith’s arm, as if a terrible truth had just dawned on her.
“What’ll we do for lunch?” she whispered.
The afternoon was a haze of heat. Brittany sunbathed on the dock, her injured hand elevated and wrapped in a plastic bag. Teddy and the other children rode their bikes up and down the Line, instructed to remain within parental eyesight. Meredith and I sat on her porch, drinking wine. Pesky lay under Meredith’s chair.
My middle felt swollen and sloshing, as if the lake were trapped inside. My spotting had returned, black and thick like oil.
“I hate having to watch him,” Meredith said as Teddy raced past. “He used to spend all day in the woods. He could disappear, and I’d know he was safe. But now, after the break-in . . .”
“Maybe it was a prank, like the officer said?”
She shook her head. “I used to play pranks. We’d toilet-paper Irene’s cabin, or let the air out of her tires—innocent stuff. Nothing like what happened in the kitchen. Someone was angry, I just don’t understand why. We keep to ourselves.”
“Maybe that’s why,” I heard myself say.
The arms of my sunglasses dug into my temples, as if my head had expanded in the heat. Meredith was quiet, waiting for me to reveal more. She’d taught me that technique in
depositions—let the witness entangle herself in her own net.
I stared at the lake’s still waters and felt myself move beneath them, the cold a membrane that surrounded me like the white of an egg. Deeper and deeper I dove, until I reached bottom, and there I found Susquehanna’s former caretaker, frozen and empty-eyed.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Meredith said, her voice reeling me back. “Of course, you know the firm’s made its decisions about who’s getting partner this year.”
She smiled. “You should understand that becoming partner is a pie-eating contest, and the prize is just more pie.”
“I like pie,” I replied.
“You work hard,” she continued, as if she hadn’t heard me. “You’re a grinder. But billing the most hours isn’t our only consideration. Client relationships are key, Beatriz.”
“Clients will trust me,” I said. “If they can get to know me.”
With clients, Meredith never used my name. She introduced me as her “secret weapon,” her “lucky charm.” She controlled invitations to lunches and dinners, which she never extended to me because I was always working for her. I was indispensable.
“It’s just not your year, kiddo,” she said. Then she waved her hand toward the clubhouse and sighed. “Sorry this is spoiling your visit.”
My brain throbbed against my skull. This trip, this summons to her summer cabin, was not a reward but a consolation prize.
Pesky hopped onto Meredith’s lap, rubbed his face against her chest.
“Poor little orphan!” she said. “We found him under the porch last summer. Jorge
took him over the winter, but as soon as we returned he came back.” She kissed the cat’s head. “I want you to succeed,” she said. “I’m on your side.”
On the Line, a Susquehannan jogged lumberingly toward us, as if in slow motion.
“All the pictures just fell!” he panted, pink-faced and breathless. “At the clubhouse. On the main wall. The staff were out by the grills, putting hot dogs on for lunch. I was walking out front. We all heard it. Lots of little crashes, all at once. I went in, and there was glass all over. The kitchen gals were as shocked as me! What if it’s structural? Maybe the wall’s coming loose?”
I followed Meredith to the clubhouse, where the small, anxious throng had begun to re-form. Photographs of each Susquehanna summer lay in odd little piles, their frames cracked and splintered. Jorge stood at attention, broom in hand, ready to sweep away every last bit of strife. The Susquehannans stopped him. It was evidence.
Paw Paw leaned over the rotary phone, trying to dial the sheriff, his thick fingers bungling the number. “Goddamn piece of shit,” he said.
Laughter erupted within me, as surprising as a hiccup. I covered my mouth. Meredith stared, her brow furrowed. I raced outside, moving toward the tennis courts, as the giggles coalesced and bubbled over, until I couldn’t contain them. Like kittens in a basket.
For dinner, the Susquehannans ordered buckets of fried chicken from a townie restaurant. The clubhouse was cleaned after the sheriff visited and said they needed an architect, not law
A wrapped plate sat, still warm, on my bed. I had no appetite. My middle felt tender, like a bruised fruit. I wondered if I should call the clinic, but the only phone was in the clubhouse, where every Susquehannan had assembled for an emergency meeting.
Trees shifted in the wind. Laughter rose from the pebbled beach. Looking out my window, I saw the neat line of cabins, all warmly lit from within—except one.
I found myself moving across the lawn as if in a dream, the grass wet beneath my bare feet. I balanced the plate on my palms, an offering. Irene waited on her porch in shadow, her eyes blue-white orbs, as if they’d been hard-boiled.
“I smell chicken,” she said. “Give me some.”
I obeyed. “You’re not at the meeting.”
She gave a little snort, then took a wing. “I shouldn’t eat this. It’ll clog whatever’s left of my arteries and then I’ll be dead, like they want. They’ll make my cabin into a game house. I’d burn it down myself if I could, just to spite them.”
“Why don’t you, then?” I asked, the words as sharp as salt on my tongue. “Burn it.”
Irene turned her milky stare on me. “Why are you here?”
“I was invited.”
“Doesn’t mean you had to come.”
Chicken grease made her chin shine. I looked away.
In the end, Vovó was as pallid and dull as candle wax, not a person but a figurine. By then, I’d become the girl she’d wanted—diligent, watchful. Careful. Yet the girl who’d ended up in stirrups in a clinic was careless. She’d wanted a moment of easy affection and, as punishment, had been scooped out and scraped away, then discharged with a brochure of potential lingering complications. Sometimes, not everything was removed. Sometimes, bits clung, unseen, holding on for dear life. I felt a sudden, sickening tug in my insides.
“There it is again,” Irene said.
“What?” I breathed.
“That wave. Heavy, like one of those lead aprons they give you before an X-ray. ”
I shivered, as if I were back in the lake.
“When I was a girl, my grandmother taught us to watch out,” Irene continued. “She’d say: ‘Don’t open this box, there’s a dybbuk inside!’ ‘Don’t go inside so-and-so’s house because they have a dybbuk!’ It’s a tricky thing—part of a soul. The part that’s hidden away. If you aren’t careful, the dybbuk escapes and does things. Spiteful things.” She smiled and clapped her withered hands. “It’ll be playing tricks tonight.”
At the edges of the lawn, where the forest began, something watched, bashful, as if it
I had fitful, troubled dreams. Once again, I crossed Susquehanna’s lawn. At the rim of the woods, I found a fuzzy lump: my grandmother’s mop from the department store. I seized the woolly head and twisted, twisted, twisted, wringing it clean.
I woke feeling heavy, my bones leaden, my eyes dry in their sockets. A woman’s strangled cry shot through the cabin. I struggled to sit up. The noise ended as abruptly as it had started.
Downstairs, I found Meredith, squatting in the doorway. Her hunched body propped the screen open. Her bare legs were pale and muscular, webbed in thin, purple veins. She must have sensed my presence because she looked back. Her face was wet with tears.
“Teddy can’t see this,” she said, eyeing me wildly.
At her feet was Pesky. His head twisted in a grotesque angle. His tongue—as pink and dry as a pencil eraser—peeked out.
“His neck’s broken,” Meredith said. “I don’t understand. I nearly tripped over him.”
A noise from above broke her trance. Swiftly, she cradled the animal to her chest.
Brittany descended the stairs, yawning and confused. Meredith ordered us to find dish towels, in which she wrapped Pesky and carried him to the staff cabin.
By the time Teddy appeared, she was chipper and affectionate, enveloping him in her arms. At breakfast, she insisted on a boat ride.
My ears rang. I ate little. The thought of bumping across the lake for hours with
Meredith at the helm was unbearable.
“I hope you aren’t coming down with something,” she said.
I told her I needed rest. As soon as the Flints’ boat left the dock, I found extra pads in
Brittany’s bathroom and jammed one between my legs. My body surged with a giddy energy, my skin glazed in sweat, my hands trembling.
Escaping the cabin, I roamed behind the clubhouse, past the tennis courts. From the woods came a sharp, clinking sound, like stones thrown at metal.
In the shade of a grove, Jorge held a shovel. His khaki sleeves were rolled up, his cap on the ground near a mound of rocky dirt. And beside the mound, a white bundle, the size of a baby.
He saw me and stopped digging. “Pet cemetery,” he said.
He groped in his pocket, producing a dented pack of cigarettes, and offered me one. The first puff felt like fire in my lungs.
“I have a daughter,” he said. “She is fourteen. Very smart. The best in her school. I am going to send her to university in the city. Maybe she will be a big lawyer, too.”
Flooded with panic for the child, I braced myself against a tree.
“You OK?” he asked.
“I’m not used to this,” I said, and let the cigarette fall.
Quickly, Jorge stamped it out with his boot. “You like being a lawyer?”
I laughed loudly, startling myself. “No.”
He nodded. “Before, I was a biochemical engineer. I made food preservatives. I loved the lab. There is exactness to it, you know? It was very nice, solving problems at the level of the cell. Now I have different problems.” He looked at the bundle at his feet. “Pesky Number One is buried here, too.”
“ ‘Number One’?”
“The cat from last year. Over the winter, it became very sick. Died in the cold. I found another black cat: Pesky Number Two. They did not notice.”
I rested my head against the tree, its bark rough on my cheek.
“You did not go on the boat today.” His voice was soft.
“I’m a bad guest.”
Jorge shook his head. “Soon you will own the boat. Soon you will be the hostess.”
That night, my last at Susquehanna, tradition changed. Dinner was served outside, the tables and chairs carried to the lawn by Jorge and his crew. Citronella torches were staked in the grass and lit, their flames sputtering.
“This is charming,” a woman said.
“Lemons into lemonade,” another added.
The clubhouse—Susquehanna’s heart and soul, according to Paw Paw—had structural issues. Most doubted this, saying that it had stood for two hundred years and would stand for two hundred more. However, given recent events, they’d called an engineer from the city to pay a visit the next morning and assess the building’s soundness. Until then, indoor meals were too risky. Anything they might need, Jorge and the kitchen staff could get.
As we sat, Meredith was animated. The long boat ride had revived her spirits. Pesky was forgotten. She talked about Brittany’s college applications and the many coaches helping her with essays. She talked about Pilates, insisting I join her at her city studio. My dull ache was a familiar friend. My insides wrung, then relaxed, then wrung again. With each twist, I leaked. A fruit being juiced. Lemons into lemonade. I laughed, and Meredith stopped, mid-sentence. Nearby, a table of Susquehannans stared.
“You should turn in early,” she whispered. “You don’t have to join us.”
After dinner, there was a bonfire on the beach. Two by two, the Susquehannans navigated the steep path to the water. Brittany found her friends. Meredith gripped Teddy’s hand. I watched from the ledge and felt as if I were floating above them, untethered.
Cane in hand, Irene clacked down the Line.
“It’s steep,” I said.
“I’ve done it for two hundred years,” she replied. “I know every dip.”
I hooked my arm with hers, and we shuffled to the shore, together.
Seeing us, Meredith’s face fell. “How sweet of you to help her down,” she said. “But I thought you were going to rest.”
My skin was tender and warm, like a sunburn. Irene held me steady, an anchor at my side.
“She didn’t want to miss the fun,” she replied, the flames’ reflection dancing in the dark lenses of her glasses. “Tonight’s the night you push me into the pyre, like they do with widows and criminals.”
Meredith glanced at me, astonished, then excused herself. “Teddy wants to roast marshmallows.”
At the far end of the beach, Jorge and the kitchen staff manned a table piled with graham crackers, Hersey’s bars, bags of marshmallows arranged like pillows. There was a cooler of beer and wine, and towers of glass goblets. The Susquehannans sipped their drinks and discussed the clubhouse, now empty and locked; Paw Paw had gone to the hardware store that very afternoon. Some disagreed with the locks, others shrugged and said times were changing. Before long, they’d have to fence off the whole property. At least then the cabins could stay open, and the children could roam free. Most of the kids crowded the table, their mouths dark smears. Others ran barefoot into the lake’s glacial water and screamed.
Irene groped for my hand, weaving her bony fingers through mine. “Tomorrow, you make your escape,” she said.
A log fell in the fire. A few Susquahannans jumped, then laughed. The flames were swaying and brilliant, thirsty for the wood beneath, emitting a pulsing heat that buffeted my cheeks with quiet force. Cinders rose like petals, floating on the night breeze. One drifted to the table, lighting up, for an instant, the white cloth. Paw Paw raised his large hand and snuffed it out.
“Gotcha!” he yelled. Susquahannans cheered.
Another cinder, unseen, glided up and away from them. I watched as it bobbed and wheeled, slipped and almost fell, and I felt myself wishing it up, up, up, cupping it with invisible hands, like a baby bird, safe in my palms, keeping it alive and ascendent as it wobbled up the path, past the Line, and settled on the clubhouse roof, that two-hundred-year-old timber so dry and crisp, and that little cinder so perfectly complete in itself, and uninvited.