saw trouble coming half a mile away. Kate Coslip, her sister’s husband’s niece, nineteen and driving a Honda Civic
as old as she was, lurched along the shore road, speeding or drunk or worse.
the girl rounded the curve of the lake, Noelle's hand on the cedar deck rail trembled. She had the sinking realization that
all her hopes to the contrary were pointless: with those crash-and-burn parents and that chaotic childhood, Kate couldn't
have grown up into anything but a beautiful, dangerous disaster waiting to happen.
Susan Coslip padded barefoot across the porch and handed her sister Noelle
a fresh gin and tonic. She'd tracked her niece's approach from the makeshift bar: a couple of two-by-sixes her husband Brent
had nailed to the railing, with an old Revere Ware kettle for ice.
at least she's on time," she said. "Or close enough, anyway."
nodded, crossing her arms and pulling at her sleeves as though it was chilly. "When's the last time you saw her?"
how old was she then?"
I don’t know, nine or ten." Ten, watching her father get married for the first time. Knock knees and dirty elbows in
a hand-me-down dress. Brad: two years younger than Brent with a taste for poison. Even then he had little time for his changeling
daughter, the spoils of a relationship long since excised from family lore.
. . . she really needs this money."
does. If she doesn't go back to school this fall, she might not go back at all." Unspoken: Brent offering to pay her tuition;
Brad, drunk, bellicose – are you saying I can't take care of my own—this from a man who housed his daughter in a closetless den in a stinking downstate apartment
after his latest girlfriend left.
Brent—He's family. And so they'd come up with this plan. Kate would be a summer girl, watch
Noelle and Jeff's little ones, do a little light housekeeping, have a chance to make some money and see how a real family
going to love having her," Susan said now with no small measure of guilt. "Think of it—you can come and go when you
want. You’ll have your freedom."
turned a troubled gaze on Susan and took a long shuddering swallow. "Freedom— like you have?"
stung, but Susan absorbed the blow, owned it—her girls, thirteen-year-old twins, were a terrifying mystery. In Susan
and Jeff's summer house, fifty yards up the road, they were doing whatever it was they did, a coven of two, an angry pair
with one hostile voice and a genius for provocation.
when they were little, they were vessels leaking a surfeit of manic energy and summers had seemed endless. Noelle's kids—Willow
was four, and Riley five—were calmer, preferring to cut paper into strips and tie knots in long hanks of yarn, rather
than running around outside or swimming in the lake. At the moment they were lying on their parents' bed, watching Spongebob
on the big TV. To Susan, their lethargy sometimes seemed more draining than if they'd bit and screamed and thrown things.
get her settled and then it's Happy Hour until the guys get here," Susan offered. "Deal?"
clicked their sweating highball glasses together in the late-afternoon sun as the Honda shuddered to a stop and the girl got
out, shaking her masses of wild hair and blinking those unsettling eyes in the bright light.
shouldered the brown grocery bag—four bottles of Chardonnay, two Sauvignon Blanc, two Merlot—and went back out
into the parking lot. The sun was making a last stand, burning through the ridge of evergreens down the road. While he waited
for his brother-in-law he watched the others like them, the city people on the way to the lake for the weekend, stockpiling
provisions the locals couldn't afford, pre-washed baby spinach and artisan bread trucked in fresh. The Pine Place Market was
the last decent grocery before the lake, and it had the advantage of the liquor store next door.
Brent came out, hefting an armload of groceries, and Jeff opened the hatch
on the Explorer.
"What did they have?" he asked, pushing aside duffle bags and golf clubs to
make room. Memorial Day weekend tended to see the place cleaned out.
"Flank steak didn't look too bad. One of those pre-fab salads, Susan'll kill
me, and I got Bagel Bites and chicken nuggets for the kids. Will Riley and Willow eat that?"
shrugged. "If they're hungry enough, I guess they will."
drove, arm hanging out into the evening breeze, passing few cars on the two-lane road. He loved the last half hour of the
drive, Chicago's Friday night traffic snarl quickly fading into memory, the weekend spooling out full of possibility ahead.
Golf tomorrow, then the Saturday night booze cruise across the lake to Henshaw's for ribs. Maybe take the kids for mini golf,
if Noelle got on his case again about how little time he spent with them.
for taking Kate on," Brent said as they got close. "It's helping more than you know."
nodded. He and Noelle were paying double the usual summer girl rates, but it was worth it if it got Noelle to lay off him.
Besides, Brent's brother was out of a job and on the bottle again—there wasn't any way around that. And he liked helping
Brent. In some strange way it shifted the balance back even; he didn't like to consider it too often, but there had always
been something there—a faint shadow of . . . what? Not inferiority, because Noelle was the better-looking sister, and
Jeff had passed up Brent's salary several years ago. Just, a shadow, leave it at
said she was reliable," he reminded Brent now. The one thing he would not put up with was babysitting yet another kid. Busting
his hump as one of the youngest partners was hard enough without having to come home on the weekends and put in another shift.
yeah. She got a three-point-eight last semester. Hard worker." Brent hesitated; Jeff's radar went up.
what aren't you telling me?"
Brent said. "Not a damn thing."
didn't have much to unpack: clothes, flip-flops, her iPod. A few books, some she'd read already. She turned off her cell phone
and tossed it in the dresser with her underwear—there was no one she wanted to talk to.
The kids weren't bad. Every kid in her dad's building was worse—way worse.
Left alone with Riley for a few minutes after dinner, Kate scolded the boy experimentally: "No—take your fingers out
of your mouth." Whispering, but putting her all into it. He took his hand away immediately and looked at it with new wonder,
as though it had offended him.
Brent and Susan's girls came home from some party, got dropped off in an Escalade,
the tires spitting gravel when the car pulled away. Emily and Nora: Kate shook their hands, smelled Wintergreen, guessed they'd
been drinking. Remembered them in pink dresses with huge skirts at her dad's wedding.
It was nothing to get Riley and Willow ready for bed. Kate tidied their room
before calling Jeff and Susan upstairs to say goodnight; she didn't like things to be out of place.
While the parents talked and drank out on the deck, Kate did the dishes and
went through the refrigerator, throwing out everything that had expired. When everything was done, she dimmed the lights and
watched them out on the deck, illuminated by an unenthusiastic moon and a dozen little candles in glass cups: the sisters
sitting close, pouring wine in each others' glasses; the men laughing loud, with their feet up on the smoldering copper fire
pit. Despite the resemblance it was hard—almost impossible—to believe that Brent was her father's brother. It
was as though her father had been animated by the Disney people; his hard and bruised edges rounded, his hair smoothed into
a Ken-doll do, his jerky motions rendered fluid.
Kate slipped away to her room to freshen up. The t-shirt and cargo pants she'd
had on all day were stifling. Kate didn't mind the heat; the cabin was way nicer than she'd expected, even without air conditioning.
It was really more of a house than a cabin. Upstairs, her little room and a bathroom and the kids' room shared a hall that
overlooked the pine-paneled great room below, with its two-story windows with a view of the lake, nothing but an expanse of
slipped on a tank top and a pair of shorts and pulled her hair up, securing the heavy mass with an elastic. She was halfway
down the stairs when she changed her mind, came back up and spritzed perfume between her breasts.
women were tipsy and Jeff was feeling fine. The Alan Jackson song, the one where Jimmy Buffet shows up in the middle, played
for the second time—Jeff's favorite. "Pour me something tall and strong," he sang along. "Make it a hurricane before
I go insane."
slid open the screen door and she was wearing a lot less than when she went in. There was one of those weird moments where
everyone stops talking at once.
Emily and Nora looked up from where they were painting their toenails in the
light of a flashlight. Emily pressed her sister's shoulder; she was the quiet twin. Nora set down the nail polish bottle and
sat up straight, gave Kate a dead-on fearless look.
"Is your mom black?" she demanded.
Susan and Noelle tripped over each other's words, scolding, apologizing, but
Kate didn’t even hesitate; she walked into the circle and took the empty deck chair.
"Yes, but she's dead," she said calmly.
"That's enough," Susan hissed and Jeff knew the good times were over for the
It was a measure of his hunger for the headlong rush, more than of his confidence,
that Jeff got up out of bed once he was sure Noelle was asleep. It didn't take long; she was snoring on her back the way she
always did when she drank.
He went to the bathroom and stared into the mirror, looking for clues: finally
he decided the odds were good he'd sleep with Kate before the summer was over.
As it turned out, it only took two weekends.
In late July, Kate lay on her bed, staring at the blades of the ceiling fan
as they twirled lazily. In the afternoons the fan did little to cool the upstairs rooms, but she liked to watch it when she
was pretending to nap. This time of day, when the children were sleeping in the next room, was the only private time she had.
Kate rubbed the hot, taut skin of her stomach and thought about Jeff. She loved
the high of thinking about him even more than she loved being with him. She loved the helplessness on his face when he was
above her, his eyes squeezed tight and his lips parted. She loved the look he gave her when the Noelle's attention was diverted:
the violent needfulness of it. The heat. She even loved the deliberate way he refused to look at her on Fridays when the men
pulled up in the Explorer, knowing that as he handed packages to his wife and hugged the kids, his mind was filled with her.
It no longer bothered her to think about Noelle. She had Susan, their sister-bond
something Kate could only guess at. She'd tried hard to feel guilty for the things she and Jeff did in the boathouse, in the
Explorer, even in the upstairs bathroom late at night, but when she looked at Noelle she saw a mother, a woman whose nursing-used
breasts hung low and tired, whose legs were traced with purple veins, and it seemed to her that Noelle had made her choice.
Kate's own mother existed only in a couple of photographs from the late eighties: she would always be twenty-five and gorgeous
and laughing and just out of reach.
the hottest night in August Noelle stood still and sick in a slash of moonlight, holding a glass of water in one hand and
two Advil in the other, and listened to the rhythmic thumping at the top of the stairs. A faint sliver of light shone under
the edge of the bathroom door.
thought: I never wanted this cabin. It had been the best offer she could think
of, to get Jeff out of the city, away from the women at work, younger every year, with their MBA's and their tight skirts.
Away from the office on those Saturdays when he just needed "to show my face for a few hours."
thought: I didn't ask for Kate. Susan and Brent had made their case so carefully—the
girl has never seen normal, and we can show her. And you'll get some time to yourself.
Play tennis, have a manicure, you deserve it.
thought: They say some men can't help themselves.
thought: Nineteen isn't a girl anymore. It's a woman who knows what she's doing.
should be so easy, Noelle thought, lying on a chaise on the patch of lawn above the slope down to the dock. Spend half an
hour on Google, make a trip to Home Depot, and there you go—simpler than baking a cake.
Susan lay on a chaise next to her. They had smoothed sunscreen on each other's
backs. They had talked about how hot Viggo Mortensen was and whether his new movie would make it up here to the sticks. Noelle
thought Susan might be asleep.
kids were at a play date at the Greers' place on the other side of the lake. In Chicago, the Greers lived in a slightly larger
house in a considerably better neighborhood in Kenilworth. But Noelle and Jeff's cabin was nicer. Riley and Willow and the
Greer kids, three of them between the ages of three and six, did well together—no fights, no bitter recriminations.
why shouldn't Noelle ask Kate to take the boat and pick them up? After all, Kate had become an expert at getting the thing
in and out of the dock, something that still gave Noelle trouble; and what else had Kate done today, besides sleeping until
waited, drifting in and out of a pleasant doze, until the explosion ripped through the silence and a few shards of fiberglass
flew within a few feet of where the women were sunbathing.
would be a lie to say she hadn't wondered if the blast would kill Kate. Wondered, and maybe wished a little, but Noelle was
a practical woman.
there was ever a time when she let herself be distracted by what might have been, that time was long gone. Chance, fate, destiny—whatever
you called it, it was all just an excuse to blame things on. Spend time wishing things were different, and you might as well
just hand over the keys and let life drive right over you.
intended to keep the keys to herself. She alone had made something happen. Fixed something. And now she would keep on fixing
things until everything was as it should be.
was why, when they went to visit Kate in the burn center, she held the children up one at a time so they could stare wide-eyed
into the cocoon of white bandages around the girl's face, searching for something familiar.
she was able to grasp Kate's hand, the one that was still perfect, and squeeze gently, promising softly that she and Jeff
and Susan and Brent would always be there for her.
she returned to the cabin and led Jeff to their room and closed the door and took his face in her hands and let him ease her
blouse off her shoulders.
hung up the phone and gazed out the window down at Wacker Drive fourteen floors below.
had called wanting to meet for a beer. Jeff said okay, even though it was only Wednesday and the beer would likely turn into
had been talking to his brother again. After Brent talked to Brad, he always called Jeff. It was as though Brent couldn't
make sense of the things Brad said until he'd retold them.
The latest update was good. Not great, but at least Kate would be back to school
in the spring, and the first round of surgery was covered by insurance.
Brad was off the sauce. Had been, since the accident—something good coming from something terrible. Jeff had thought
about it a few times, but it didn't make any more sense to him now than it ever had.
hoped Brent would get all the news out of the way fast so they could talk about something else, and just enjoy their beers.
He didn't really like talking about Kate. He liked remembering her the way she was, with that crazy hair and those soft hippie
shirts and the way she always had the start of a smile on her face, the kind of smile that made you think she knew some secret
and she was considering telling you.
was a girl, an intern down the hall, who reminded him of Kate a little. Jeff
wasn't positive, but he thought she been warming up to him lately. U of C girl: smart, with funky black-framed glasses and
deep red lipstick.
was on his to-do list, but now, staring at the traffic far below, Jeff's mind wandered back over the summer. Driving up with
Brent, playing old CDs and laughing the whole way. Finding the wives half in the bag on the deck already, their perfume sweet
as their wine-soaked kisses. The kids with their sun-dusted hair, running down the lawn toward the dock, laughing and raising
their arms to be lifted into the air. And Kate: especially Kate.
had to let it play out sometimes, remembering, all the moments and days and nights that had come along and surprised you with
the way they made you feel. No one could say what was next, and the best you could do was dive in and let it all wash over
you, avoid the eddies and the rocks, find your place in the current.
Jeff turned away from the window. Shut his computer down. Ran his fingers through his hair. Picked up his coat and
wondered if there was time for a drink with the girl down the hall before he went to meet Brent.