It was their first vacation together, a log-cabin weekend with Michael’s old friends from grad school, and Lori was determined not to ruin it. This was more her fear than his, and she had overcompensated with eager questions—Where was this Quad? Who’s Dupin? What’s absinthe?—her eyes wide and searching and wanting more. But somewhere between Tallahassee and the mountains of eastern Tennessee, Lori grew weary of Michael’s nostalgia. Her temper was tripped easily—by his voice, by the loose flapping of the Wrangler’s rag top, by a stomach upset from too many filling station snacks. Didn’t he know she never wanted to go? Why couldn’t he have left at her home with her TV and magazines, refilling her favorite blue mug with dark wine?
She pressed her forehead to the cold window, thinking of the stupid questionnaire Dr. Ryerson had given her during a session earlier that week. I sometimes have strong feelings that do not seem like mine, score from 0 to 10. Focus instead on your breathing, she thought. Conjure tranquil images: pristine mountains, waterfalls, softly falling snow. Beside her, she could feel Michael coiling tightly. The last hour of Lori’s sulky shrugs and one-word answers had finally burned up the last of his good cheer. How many miles had they driven in that bitter and troublesome silence? She didn’t know. A phrase lifted in Lori’s mind, a father’s frequent advice to his inscrutably moody little girl, Please, honey, just try to have fun.
She reached over and squeezed Michael’s knee.
“I love you.” She winced to hear herself. I love you? It was overblown and over-sudden and, worse, it wasn’t what she meant. What she meant was, I’m sorry, it’s just me, I’m trying to snap out of it. What it meant was, Can’t you just pretend I’m happy, or that you are?
Michael squeezed her hand and sighed wearily. “Everything OK?” he said. His thumb played over a slick patch of skin left from the night Lori had once scalded herself with pasta water.
“Fine,” she said, reclaiming her hand. She lit a cigarette and opened the window. March cold rushed in over the glass, blowing ash back on the houndstooth sweater she bought just for the trip.
“Nerves,” Michael said. She couldn’t tell if it was a question or a diagnosis. She also wondered whether he was talking to her or to himself (he had made a few too many self-deprecating jokes this week, comparing his high school teaching to Derek’s loftier professorship). “You’re just nervous about meeting Derek and Mallory. That’s understandable.”
“I’m sure that’s all it is,” she said. “You know me and new people. I’ll come around.”
“Well, nothing to fret over. They’re great, you’ll love them, and I’m supremely confident they’ll love you, of course.”
Lori could feel his easy, reassuring smile. She did her level best to return it.
* * *
They traded lonely interstate for the mercantile busyness of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Michael in a hurry now, not even asking if she wanted to stop somewhere before heading to the cabin. They rode the rising contours of the land, towns falling behind and below, the streets narrowing, pavement fading to gravel that scaled a steepening grade. At some point, Lori’s ears popped from the change in elevation, relieving a headache she didn’t know she’d had. The Wrangler pitched and swerved through a final turn, gravel rifling against the undercarriage. The Jeep lurched forward and came to a hard stop on paved driveway hidden in the wooded mountainside.
“Ta-da,” Michael said, smiling expectantly. Lori managed a grin. The cabin before her was larger and newer than she’d expected, two stories of flat-cut logs stacked in clean yellow lines. It looked less like the decrepit lean-to she’d been expecting than a life-sized dollhouse, plastic and perfect, something that had until recently been stored under glass.
“Looks like we’re here first,” Michael said, taking the Jeep out of gear and handing her the keys. “Why don’t you go on in while I get the rest of our stuff.”
She left him to their things, climbed the few steps to a wraparound deck, and let herself in. It was cold and dim, the inside lit only by the winter daylight in the windows. There was a deep maroon couch, a few wing-backed chairs, and a thick aroma of woodsmoke and furniture polish that reminded her of a funeral parlor. In the far corner, a small but serviceable kitchenette sat on an island of white linoleum, where another door opened, presumably, to another portion of the deck. On the wall hung a wooden plaque with Linger Longer carved into it. She remembered the words from a brochure for the cabin Michael had showed her, and she remembered wondering why cabins needed names.
In the center of the downstairs, an iron spiral staircase climbed like a metal vine to the second-floor landing. Lori went up slowly, her night bag bumping against her hip. It was eerily quiet—all she heard were her footfalls on the iron rungs and the hiss of a steady rain that had just started falling—and she had to suppress an urge to call out and make sure the cabin was empty. At the top she walked to one end of the landing and pushed the door open into a small bedroom with a slanted ceiling of exposed rafters. Against the far wall stood a squat chest o’ drawers with an oval mirror hung above it. Her reflection met her with its plainness, her pale skin, her brown hair a haystack from hours in the car, her eyes tired and dull. She stepped inside and flinched—I sometimes don’t recognize myself in the mirror, 0 to10!—when she saw the young woman sitting on the foot of an unmade bed.
A high-pitched note of surprise escaped Lori.
“You’re here!” Lori said. She took a deep breath, feeling more than a little embarrassed. “Sorry, you scared me.” She crossed the room, hand extended. “Nice to finally meet you. I’m Lori.”
Michael had never described Mallory, but she appeared years younger than she could be, eighteen or twenty, with large blue eyes and long black hair parted down the middle. She wore a plain blue dress with three-quarter sleeves and a frayed neckline. She held her hands folded in her lap, the nails unpainted, rimmed with half-moons of dirt. She wore no shoes.
“Hello? You up there?” Michael called from below.
A tear spilled down Mallory’s cheek, then another. She glanced up at Lori with her shoulders back, her face serene, even as the tears flowed faster, dropping in dark circles on her dress. Lori froze, wondering how someone could cry like that yet look so peaceful.
“Let me tell you this story,” the woman said to her in a steady voice.
Lori felt herself drawn close. The woman lifted her mouth to her ear; her breath was cold.
“Babe?” she heard Michael call outside the door. “Everything ok?” He stepped quickly into the room, struggling with the buttons of his coat.
“Michael, I think something’s wrong with her,” Lori whispered.
He shrugged the coat off one shoulder, and then he took a sharp step back. “Who the fuck is she?”
* * *
I find myself someplace and I don’t remember how I got there. What would she give that right now? 5? 6? Lori found herself wondering more about the numbers—the grading scale? the self-evaluation metric?—than the question as she stood on the deck in the cold, watching the woman in the blue dress walk down the paved driveway. Why 0 through 10? It seemed an awful lot of degrees. She didn’t remember exactly how she’d got from the bedroom to the deck—judging how strongly she felt, this seemed beside the point. How many shades of lunatic gray were there? Or was it simply an indication of frequency? Or a measure of her own alarm? She resolved to ask Dr. Ryerson this when she returned.
Beside her, Michael leaned forward, wrists crossed over the railing. Together they watched the woman in the blue dress walk down the gravel road. She had her arms held out to her sides, like a child crossing a stream on a narrow log. One bare foot plunged into a puddle, but she neither slowed nor seemed to care as she disappeared around the bend. “We can’t just let her walk, can we?” Lori said. “It’s cold, and there’s nothing down that road for miles.”
“It’s not a mile to the main road,” Michael said. “Besides, we can’t exactly restrain her.” He slipped an arm around Lori’s waist. She felt the attempt but her body tensed, refusing to play along.
“Should we follow her?”
“There’s a phone inside. I’ll call the manager’s office,” Michael said. It occurred to Lori that this wasn’t really an answer, but she wasn’t sure she wanted one.
“What do you think happened to her? How’d she end up here?”
“Beats me. Probably got drunk in town and came back to sleep it off in the wrong cabin.”
“Maybe she had someone drop her off, gave bad directions,” Michael shrugged impatiently. Lori hated this tendency of his, when he confused her asking questions with her questioning him. “The property manager’s number is on the paperwork. I’ll go get it. Give him quick call.”
He kissed the top of her head and went inside. The rain fell harder now, tapping flat and lonely on the deck’s overhang and on the dead leaves scattering the forest floor. About thirty yards into the woods, she glimpsed a deer. It was a full-grown doe, thin and gray with its late-winter coat. It twitched, as if generally aware of Lori without knowing exactly where the danger was. From some distance, she heard a faint mechanical grind of an engine. A large green pickup took the road’s bend in a wild spray of gravel. When she looked back, the deer had vanished.
Derek and Mallory lay siege to the cabin in a confusion of hugs, luggage, and food.
“We bring comestibles,” Derek had said, greeting Michael with a lift of his chin and a deep Tennessee twang. “Not that you need any. You’ve fattened up, Lofton.”
Michael worked his fingers in his side and pinched a handful of stomach. “More cushion for the pushing.”
“Later,” Derek said. “The women will get jealous.” He was tall and rangy, cloaked in an olive-drab jacket and a thick, sandy beard, like a slightly older version of the college students on Tennessee Avenue back home, Lori thought, doing their best impressions of the genuinely poor. Mallory was tiny at five feet even. She looked like she didn’t weigh any more than a hundred pounds, even in her wool skirt and cowboy boots. She seemed a strange fit for Derek, outsized in every way except volume, in which she cheerfully exceeded him.
“You’re Lori,” she trumpeted, offering a tiny mittened hand. “You’re lovely and I’m happy to know you.”
“Likewise,” Lori said. She was wary of Mallory’s enthusiasm, even as she felt herself wanting to be carried away by it.
“It’s freezing,” Mallory said. “Tell me you weren’t waiting outside for us!”
“Not at all,” Michael said. He shook his head at Lori, a gesture she understood to mean save the woman in blue for later.
“Well, dear heart,” Derek said, “I guess we’ll bunk here tonight, if you can handle such scrofulous company.” He dropped the bags on the deck, then turned to Lori and executed a shallow but efficient bow. “The lady excluded, of course.”
“The lady doesn’t know what scrofulous means,” Lori said, “but it probably applies.”
It took over half-an-hour to move Derek and Mallory in. While the boys pack-muled everything inside, Lori and Mallory sorted the food: plastic bins of berries, softball-sized Granny Smith apples, rice crackers and baguettes and tins of sardines in mustard sauce. Lori unloaded a cardboard box full of meats and cheeses with labels that made no pronounceable sounds in her head—bresaola and sopressata, manchego and roquefort.
“God, we could eat for a month off this,” Lori said. Apologetically, she added, “Michael and I didn’t bring any food.” Shame stirred in her brain, threatening to trigger a return of the morning’s dark mood. Did she bring all of this just to show me up? To make me feel bad?
“It’s ridiculous, I know,” Mallory said. “We stopped by this little market in Pigeon Forge and I said, ‘Blackberries in February? In Tennessee?’ I was powerless after that, lost in a spending fugue.”
There was a certain theatricality to how she talked and moved, unpacking food with wiggling fingers, like a stage magician conjuring cheeses from a top hat. Lori felt herself seesawing between finding the show enjoyable or irksome.
Michael came in, toting a wooden crate on his shoulder. “You may have just become Lori’s best friend, Mal,” Michael said. He set it crate down and winked at Lori. “Think a whole case will be enough for you, babe?”
“That’s a whole lotta wine,” she said, uncertain how else to answer.
“I didn’t buy the case, not today anyway. Old crate, new wine,” Mallory said. “That’s a beautiful metaphor for something, I’m sure, but I just don’t know what it is.”
“Pour the wine,” Michael said, “and the metaphors will come.”
* * *
“Waitaminute, waitaminute, waitaminute!” Mallory sounded drunk, but Lori—who definitely was—couldn’t be sure. They were outside despite the cold and the dark, huddled in their coats around a patio table crowded with empty wine bottles and paper plates sticky with the congealed remnants of dinner. Behind them, a hot tub kicked on and off intermittently, perfuming the air with a clean chemical scent. An electric camping lantern dimly cast an orange glow no farther than the table’s edge. “Gimme a light, Lofton.”
Lori heard the click of Michael’s Zippo opening. The flame plucked Mallory’s face from the shadows like a while tulip bulb.
“Prego,” he said and clicked the lighter shut.
She blew a jet of smoke—Lori could smell the spiced scent of a clove cigarette—into the lantern’s glow. “So she was just there? In your room?”
“Just there,” Michael said. He had saved the story until after dinner, until enough drinks had flowed and—as Michael was so fond of saying—the time was propitious. “All alone in a pretty blue dress.”
Lori didn’t remember the dress being particularly pretty, but the woman was, and she guessed that was what Michael meant.
“Y’all call the police?”
“Nope,” Michael said. “Called the property manager. Once I reassured him nothing had been broken or stolen, he lost interest tout de suite. He recommended I call the Sheriff’s Department if she comes back.”
“I should fucking think so,” Mallory said. “She say anything before she left?”
“She was crying,” Lori said, recalling those quiet, effortless tears. “Not crying, but you know, tears. Not tearing up, I mean they were falling.” Frustrated, she lit a cigarette.
“Mater Lachrymarum,” Derek offered knowingly.
Michael shook his head. “Just got up, shot by me, and then she was down the road.”
“Well,” Derek said, “I reckon your mystery woman was a revenant. If we’re telling ghost stories, let’s do it right.” He leaned his chair back and produced a large bottle of whiskey from somewhere beyond the lantern’s electric-orange reach. He took Lori’s glass by the stem, tossed the rest of her wine into the night, and poured her glass half full. She sipped, and the whiskey filled a crack in her chapped upper lip with fire.
“She did say something to me,” Lori said. She’d been quiet for most of the dinner, letting the old friends catch up. She had liked listening to their stories, a weekend in an old brothel in New Orleans, a rafting trip in West Virginia. Lori had never really been anywhere, just a few trips to the beaches down south when she was a kid, Disneyworld a handful of times. She nursed a private hope that one thing Michael would bring into her life was more travel—high adventure in exotic locales! She found herself now grateful for the mysterious appearance of woman. It had given her something to contribute.
“Really?” Derek said. “Do tell.”
Lori struggled to collect the memory. She could see the pale face, eerily serene behind a wash of tears, her silently working mouth. There was a coldness in her ear. (Is that even possible? Am I remembering that right? Sometimes I feel like my memories aren’t mine, 7).
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s like a dream I can’t remember, just remember having, you know?”
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” Derek said.
Mallory squealed like a theremin. “Creepy,” she said, beating her small fists against her thighs. “So fucking creepy.”
“Sounds like an old mountain legend,” Derek said. “The Blue Bride of Bluff Mountain. Abandoned at the altar, the comely young bride threw herself over the falls. Now she roams the mountains weeping tears of river water whilst seeking her revenge.”
“Enough! Enough” Mallory cried. “Can we just skip the ghost stories, please? Lori, please, tell us all about yourself. I want to know everything about you, inside and out.”
Lori lit a cigarette, then noticed she already had one going in the ashtray. She was ready for this, had even rehearsed a little scripted introduction of herself to perform for Derek and Mallory (No, I never went to college, we couldn’t afford it after Dad died, but I work at a bookstore where a certain tall, handsome high school teacher just happened to bring his class on Friday nights—and here she would lovingly clutch his hand, or maybe kiss his cheek). But sitting in boozy comfort with Michael’s friends, she found little need of it.
“Ask me anything,” she said, “and I shall answer true.”
A silence followed, the longest of the night. Lori worried how the others were filling it in their minds; she struggled not to blame herself for it, to not feel like she was somehow lacking.
“Wot’s the best fing about livin’ wit Lofton, then?” came a high Cockney accent. It was Michael’s best Dickensian urchin, a voice that came out sometimes with the liquor. Everyone laughed.
“Well,” she said. She walked two fingers up Michael’s arm, clutched his coat sleeve and pulled him into a deep, whiskey-wet kiss.
“My goodness,” Mallory said to Derek. “She’s absolutely glowing.” She folded her small hands on the table, laid her forehead against them, and dropped a sleepy wink at Lori.
Michael was inside her.
Their sex was slow, prodding, but not without rhythm. She felt her body return to her in a series of waking sensations. Her mouth rubbed slickly against his smooth, nearly hairless chest; her body was a small burning coal in the otherwise frigid bedroom. She felt Michael’s weight, her face pressed too tightly against him. She struggled for air.
“Get off.” The words were muffled against his flesh. “Can’t breathe.”
“Hey, babe, what’s—”
“Get off.” She couldn’t pull any air. Panic lit her brain, but its messages couldn’t find her limbs. She felt as trapped in her body as under his (My body feels like it doesn’t belong to me, 10), and starbursts of light, yellow and blue, flared in a great distance.
“Babe, are you ok?”
She felt his hands on her shoulders, shoving, and she was suddenly upright, straddling him in the dark, not wedged beneath but sitting high and panting overtop him. In one of the room’s high windows, a cloud hovered, brightly silvered by the moon behind it. She took in deep, wet breaths and tried to make her heart go slower.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She slid off him and collapsed onto a cool spread of sheet.
The sheets, I should have changed them, she thought. They had come upstairs after dinner and too much to drink, Michael behind her, patting her ass with upturned palms, a pantomime of unbridled lechery that wasn’t all play-pretend, hurrying her into the bedroom where they embraced and kissed and undressed, falling on the bed, which had remained unmade since the woman in the blue dress had been sitting on it.
“Too much to drink,” she said. “We made love in someone else’s dirty sheets, 10.”
“What?” He said. “Whose sheets? What do you mean, ‘10’?”
“Never mind,” she said. There was no way to explain it just then.
“Hold on.” He got up and crossed the dark room. Light spilled from the bathroom, and she heard him running the sink. He returned and placed a glass of water in her hands. Lori rose up on her elbows and drank. Cool water dribbled down her chin and spilled onto her chest. The rest of the day was returning to her, memories swimming up from the blackout void like strange fish from some sunless deep. There was something else wrong. She looked for it in darkness but could see only the woman, sitting there, crying.
“Is it like, one of your,” she heard him sigh, then surrender to the word, her mother’s favorite, “difficulties?”
She sipped more, shaking her head slowly. Michael pressed his lips together and smoothed her hair—tangled and sweaty from their love-making. She hated the word, but, like him, had no other shorthand for it, for nights like the one when she had scalded herself so badly. She had been making spaghetti—nothing fancy, a homemade red sauce, a box of noodles—and talking to her mother, the phone cradled uncomfortably between her neck and shoulder. Michael was grading papers at the table, and she was in the process of explaining their situation to her mother—how Michael had let her move into his spare room after her lease expired; how, yes, she was living with him but still looking for her own place (this was back when she was still at least pretending to look).
It started with taste. She had put a spoonful of sauce in her mouth and suddenly the taste of it in her mouth was…off. It wasn’t the taste, really, but the feeling of tasting. Like a wire had crossed in her brain, and now having food in her mouth felt like she was looking at a bowl overflowing with water. The world had suddenly gone strange—she had gone strange. She saw Michael’s shoulders beneath a too-white undershirt hunched over his grading, and it was like someone had control of a dimmer switch on the brightness of the world, and they had turned it higher and higher and brighter, and she couldn’t swallow and she simply took the sauce out of her mouth, as though it were a solid thing, like taking a bone from a dog. And she had held her hand in the steam above the boiling pasta water and (Something inside of me makes me do things I don’t want to do, 10!) she didn’t want Michael (who was now, somehow, her mother’s voice, dressed in a t-shirt and grading papers but still all of that was her mother’s voice) to see her hand dirty and dripping with sauce and (I find that I can make physical pain go away, 10!!!) she had watched her hand plunge through the swirling mist and break the surface of the water and she saw her hand rest there amid the many broken and scattered reflections of herself that rose in violent effervescence around it as the phone dropped from her and her mother’s voice was pulling her away, Michael was pulling her away, and the pain that had been so dim and distant suddenly became clear. And it was the ragged-throat shrieks of her own screaming.
“I’m ok,” she said now, handing Michael back the glass of water. “No difficulties.”
* * *
The next morning, after a breakfast of chicory coffee and scones, they decided to venture into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and find a trail to hike. They piled into Michael’s Jeep—boys up front, girls in back, just like any old-couple quorum—and drove down the mountain. They’d decided on Laurel Falls—an easy hike, two hours tops with a gentle slope—much to Michael’s chagrin.
“I’ve been on that trail. It’s fucking paved,” Michael groused, still not giving up as they drove into the park proper. “It’s the kiddie ride of trails.”
“Suck it up, buttercup,” Derek said, screwing a lens onto his camera. “Mal says the falls, we’re going to the falls.”
The Laurel Falls trail was a narrow thread of black asphalt that traced the mountain’s outer edge. There they joined a motely parade of young couples, lone hikers, and families encumbered with little kids who had to be constantly shouted back. At certain points, around stone outcroppings and sharp bends, Lori could see for hundreds of yards before and behind them, a line of people steadily climbing or descending, pilgrims with Polaroids. She examined the faces of those coming down for some sign of what lay ahead, but she couldn’t read a thing.
“Company halt,” Derek said. He jogged a few paces ahead, turned, and aimed his camera. While he worked the lens, people swung past them like water diverted by a stone. Michael slipped his arms over Lori’s and Mallory’s shoulders. Lori tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, dropped her hand to her side, then let it rest on his stomach. “Say cheese!”
“Shitty trail!” Michael said. In passing, a mother with a frosted perm and a fat little boy scowled at them.
After Derek snapped the picture, they continued up the trail. Like traffic, they kept to the right, hugging a wall of exposed dirt, rocks, and roots that supported a deep forest rising above them. At one particularly sharp curve stood a small red sign that read Warning: Falling Hazard. Lori drifted to it, stepping her feet to the asphalt’s edge. The earth peeled away, gradually at first, thick with underbrush and bare trees, but steeper as it went until the land disappeared altogether. Far below she could see a river, fast-flowing with the March snowmelt, rippled white in some places, smooth as glass in others. It was so clear, so close-seeming, that she could almost hear the water, the current brushing over polished stones with a sound like the wind rustling leaves, growing louder, not like wind at all but something solid charging through the forest behind her.
Lori turned just in time to see a shape, wild and bucking, spill out onto the trail. She felt the rough heat of an animal body brush by her. She heard a snort and saw one panic-huge eye streak across her field of vision like a black comet. It was a full-grown deer, and it had launched from the woods behind her as if chased, skittered across the trail, and pitched itself over the edge. She watched it turn twice in the long silence of the fall before it hit the water in a soundless spray. Lori’s hands sought Michael, Mallory, anyone, but found nothing. A cry caught in her throat, and her heart thundered in her chest. She looked for help.
She was all alone.
Everyone—the hikers and tourists, parents and kids, Michael and Derek and Mallory—everyone was gone, vanished. It was as if they had disappeared into the woods or careened off the edge or had simply been lifted up and out of the world. Panic rushed upon her, and her lungs took in great sucks of air until she felt so lightheaded she had to crouch to keep her balance. I find myself someplace and I don’t remember how I got there, 10.
She continued up the trail, moving quickly, constantly fighting back a lunatic urge to run. She heard Laurel Falls before she saw them, the muted cymbal crash of water falling on water. Lori crossed a wooden bridge above a rushing stream fed by the falls and stepped onto an uneven platform of slick bedrock. The falls rose thirty feet above it, the water strung over jagged levels of stone like braids of dirty gray rope. The water and the darkly wet stone behind it formed a shimmering window, inside of which she saw a woman. Lori reached for the water. She felt nothing at first, then an icy coldness began to spread, her veins carrying numbness throughout her, cutting straight for her heart. She cupped her hand, let it fill, and drank.
“Hey, don’t do that, baby.” Michael’s hand was on her shoulder. She turned, spilling the water down the front of her coat. She clutched her hand to her chest as if she’d hurt it. Behind him, Derek was directing Mallory closer to the falls for a picture, and a woman—the mother with the frosted perm—was pulling her son out of the shot. “You shouldn’t drink that,” Michael said. “Giardia, you know? Protozoa? You could get really sick.”
Lori laughed softly.
She eased down on the cold wet bedrock, sitting cross-legged and leaning back on her hands. “Sometimes everybody goes away, 10!” she said, loud enough for people to stare. Mallory slowly released her picture pose and motioned for Derek. Other people gathered round. Loir laughed—she wanted to laugh, but the echo sounded more like a scream in her ears.
At the cabin, Michael took her coat and started a fire, which she spent the next hour tending, watching sparks fly in brief erratic patterns. She could hear the others murmur conspiratorially in the kitchenette. Michael was apologizing for her, explaining her moods, her “difficulties.” It must be bad, she knew, for them to talk about her in the same room. It must be really bad.
She heard the refrigerator open, cabinet doors shut. Something—she didn’t know what—made a high whistling sound. She turned her head enough to see Michael and Derek packing food into a cardboard box. So we’re leaving, she thought. I’ve lost my mind and ruined Michael’s trip and now we’re leaving. Tonight they pack boxes and tomorrow, in Tallahassee, I’ll pack boxes. I’ll go back to Mom’s apartment, she thought, where the dark wine really flows.
“Hey, Lori?” he said. “Derek and I are going to start dinner.”
He looks so sad, she thought, sad and tired and afraid. Lori lifted her hand and gave a small wave. She felt like a stage actor recovering from a badly muffed line, trying to repair the play by pretending it’s not a play. Still, she forced herself to look him in the eyes, hoping for a smile. God, how she wanted him to smile at her, to give a quick wink and let her know everything was fine, that everything would be all right. Derek carried the box outside and Michael slung the door shut behind them. The Linger Longer plaque shook on the wall, threatening to slip off its nail.
“Hey there, kiddo.” Mallory stood beside her. She offered a cup and saucer. “I made you some tea.”
Lori took it and sipped.
“I wasn’t sure how you take it. Would you like milk or honey?” Worry and hopefulness had drawn a crooked smile on her face.
“You could Irish it up for me,” Lori said, borrowing one of Michael’s phrases. It felt strange to say it, like having a mouthful of someone else’s teeth.
“Now you’re talking.” Mallory fetched a bottle of whiskey from the counter. She held it out from her chest in her two small hands and cast furtive glances around—the perfect pantomime of a naughty child—and took a swig before splashing some in the teacup. Lori sipped, the whiskey sitting atop the tea like burning oil.
“My girl,” Mallory said, laughing. She tucked her long gray skirt beneath her legs and sat on the hearth beside Lori. “So, do you want to talk about it?”
Lori shook her head.
“Then we don’t,” Mallory said. She shook a cigarette out of a small tin and lit it off a stick of kindling plucked from the fire. “See? Just that easy. How about a story instead?
Lori nodded; she thought a story would suit her just fine.
* * *
“When the Civil War finally came to Tennessee, a young man named Matthew, great-grandson of a Revolutionary War colonel, volunteered. He went off to defend hearth and home while his wife, Lorelei, watched after their four children and the little hardware store they ran.”
“Lorelei?” Lori said. She tried a smile that said Come on, are you serious? Mallory offered a shrug that said The story’s the story.
“One evening, Lorelei encountered a woman she had never seen before on the ox trail between the store and home.
“‘Are you lost?’ she asked the woman. ‘Do you need help?’
“The woman made no reply, but Lorelei was worried and cajoled her into coming home with her. The woman didn’t say a word for the three miles it took them to walk in the wooded twilight. Lorelei prattled on about the store and her chores. But when she spoke of her husband at war, the woman suddenly grabbed Lorelei’s face so tightly with her hand that it blocked her air and trapped her voice. Lorelei struggled, but the woman held her fast, just with that one hand to her mouth, as if they’d been joined by a powerful force. The stranger woman said, ‘Let me tell you this story.’”
Lori sipped more of her whiskey. She steadied her gaze at Mallory who looked back at her with flat eyes and lips spread into a thin smile.
“Then she let go and led the way to the house—Lorelei struggling to pace her—as if she’d walked the way a thousand times before. Lorelei, breathless and unable to cry for help, followed.
“At home the front door of her house shot open—as it did every evening—and her children rushed out, all four of them, oldest to youngest—as they did every evening. But this evening they grabbed the stranger woman by the waist and the hips and the legs, all but disappearing in the folds of her skirts and shouting ‘Mama! Mama! We are so happy you are home!’
“Lorelei opened her mouth to ask what her children were doing but no words came out. Her tongue would not move in her mouth, her throat would shape no notes. Even the air she forced from her lungs made no sound. She tried to grab her oldest, but the woman they called Mama slapped her hands away. The woman proceeded to tell the children what had happened, but as if she were Lorelei.
“‘Let her stay, Mama!’ they all cried. ‘She can help make dinner, and we are hungry!’
“And so she stayed. They moved her into the small corner room near the ice house. The woman bought her servant’s clothes to wear and gave her a servant’s life. No one—not the in-laws nor her own mother, not the neighbors nor her children—recognized her. For the next two years they called the stranger woman Lorelei or they call her Mama, and they called Lorelei nothing at all.”
As Lori listened, she felt the day’s confusion find focus and even a bit of stability in a newfound anger. She didn’t know why Mallory would choose to play such a trick on her—was she bored? A mean drunk? Did she harbor strong and untrammeled feelings for Michael? She snatched the bottle from beside Mallory and refilled her cup.
“It was winter when Matthew came back,” Mallory continued, oblivious to any change in Lori. “He wore a buckskin patch over an eye he’d lost, but he had survived the War. Lorelei was collecting kindling she saw him come up the road. She watched her children fly off the porch to hug their father. He knelt, gathering them in his arms, letting them peel back the patch, tickling their ribs, and Lorelei’s heart broke all over. Would her Matthew know her where no one else did?”
Here, Mallory stopped the story. She took Lori’s drink from her and finished it off.
“So,” she said. “Do you think Matthew knew his wife? Do you think he wanted to?”
Lori tried to stand but stumbled; the whiskey had hit her harder than she’d thought. “Do you think I’m stupid? Or do you really think you’ll trick me into thinking that girl was some sort of ghost, trying to take me over?”
Mallory stood and looked down at her. She raised her hand as if to cover her mouth, then stopped. The hurt and fear slowly fell, and she looked somehow different, rearranged.
“You tell me,” she said to Lori, walking toward the spiral staircase. “Do you think Michael would know you?”
Mallory turned slowly and went upstairs. She curtsied from the landing, casting down a cold but toothsome smile before gliding into Lori and Michael’s bedroom. The door slammed behind her just as Michael poked his head in from the deck, holding a pair of tongs. “Dinner’s almost ready,” he said. “How do you want your burger?”
Without answering him, Lori stood—nearly floated—to her feet. She felt strangely light, free of anger and whiskey and fear, as if whole chambers of her mind had been emptied. (Sometimes it feels like there are walls inside my mind…1?) Michael clicked the tongs absently, still a little worried, trying to be hopeful.
Mallory ducked in beneath his arm, shivering with the cold. “Hurry up and come out here, Lori. Don’t leave me out here with the men-folk all night.”
“Shall I bring the whiskey?” she said
“Uisge beatha,” she said. “Please.”
Lori nestled the whiskey bottle in her arm like a bunch of long-stemmed roses and carried it to him. “What’s that mean?” she said, walking outside.
“It’s Gaelic for whiskey,” Michael said as she passed him. “Means water of life.”
“That’s fascinating,” Lori whispered, kissing him on the cheek.
She let him take the bottle and stopped near the hot tub.
“Someone’s thinking ahead,” she heard someone (Derek? Matthews?) say. Michael appeared beside her, working buttons, and the water came to life. Two pinkish-blue spheres of light popped on, and watched the water foam and bubble, the fumes stinging her eyes. It was snowing now, and she watched the large, fat flakes blow over the deck and melt in the rising steam.
Submerged in the water, she saw the billowing fabric of the woman’s blue dress and her long black hair fanning out. The woman raised one hand, her fingers just beneath the surface, not an inch away from Lori’s own outstretched hand.
She watched as Michael rushed up and pulled the woman away from the water, telling her not to drink. The woman, who was wearing Lori’s clothes, swatted his hands away and slipped an arm around his waist. She watched Michael hold her tight, as they walked down the trail with Derek and Mallory close behind.
I want to tell you a story: Sometimes I hear voices in my head that are not mine.
She saw her hands on a field of blue, her fingernails rimmed with dirt. Her bare knees were pressed together and her legs poured themselves palely down to bare feet.
“Sorry, Jesus—you,” the woman wore her houndstooth sweater. She wore all of Lori’s clothes, wore her hair. Her face.
Behind her was a door, and behind that door a man’s deep voice asking if the woman was all right in there. She felt a tears spilling down her cheeks, but she could attach no feeling to them. Her dress showed dark, wet circles, but it didn’t matter. It was only water.
“Let me tell you this story,” she heard this body around her say.
Vincent Masterson received his MFA from The University of Alabama. A native of Chesapeake, Ohio, he currently lives in Lake Worth, Florida, where he works for the Lantana Branch of the Palm Beach County Library System.