Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell is a psychological thriller that follows two girls that were kidnapped as kids, whose lives intertwine once again, almost twenty years later, when a movie with a shockingly familiar plot forces them to confront their past. (On Sale June 14, 2016).
The summer precocious Lois and pretty Carly May were twelve years old, they were kidnapped, driven across the country, and held in a cabin in the woods for two months by a charismatic stranger. Nearly twenty years later, Lois has become a professor, teaching British literature at a small college in upstate New York, and Carly May is an actress in Los Angeles, drinking too much and struggling to revive her career. When a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more, they must face the public exposure of their secret history and confront the dark longings and unspeakable truths that haunt them still.
DEEP IN THE WOODS
by Lucy Ledger
“Here we are.” The kidnapper spoke, his voice low and sonorous. It made the girls feel sleepy and safe. Shouldn’t have, but it did. The car had left the main road an hour or so ago. Since then they had been curving through mountains, and now, as they jounced down a long unpaved driveway, the headlights carved out of the darkness a neat log cabin. A fairy-tale cabin. Midnight on the nose, according to the dashboard: the witching hour, the pumpkin hour. He cut the engine, and all went dark—car, cabin, woods, mountains. Still they were not afraid. They slid across vinyl seats and tumbled stiff-legged from the car, shuffled across soft pine needles in the direction of the little house they could no longer see. The sky was moonless, starless. Perhaps they could have run, but they did not think of running.
The two girls, pretty as princesses—one dark and one fair—were neither deprived of food nor cast into a dungeon. The kidnapper prepared hot chocolate on the old stove while they perched on the edges of their chairs at the long wooden kitchen table, legs swinging. He served it in chipped ceramic mugs with chocolate chip cookies straight out of a box. They ate and drank ravenously. Hannah let her chin-length dark hair fall forward to prevent the others from reading her face. She had no idea what it might tell them; her emotions were obscure to her, as if they belonged to someone else. She kept her eye on Callie, who seemed to be taking everything in stride; it made sense to take her cue from the girl who had been with the man two days longer than she had and seemed none the worse for it. As soon as they had entered the slightly musty, low-ceilinged cabin, Callie had removed her stiff dark wig to reveal the most impossibly perfect blond curls Hannah had ever seen. Right away Callie had felt lighter, more free; the wig had grown heavy and itchy. She felt herself expand to fill the room. She didn’t mind that the kidnapper and the other girl, Hannah, were looking at her. Callie never minded being looked at. Hannah, wiping a cookie crumb from her lower lip, thought about this. Wondered what it meant, that she and Callie were so different. Did it mean anything at all?
The man seldom met their eyes, but Hannah felt him watching them when he didn’t think they were looking. Attempting to gauge his expression, she decided that he looked contented. Peaceful. Pleased with himself; pleased with them. She didn’t think he looked dangerous—but then, how was she to judge?
What did he want with them?
During this time the kidnapper spoke little. He paced the long main room of the cabin, adjusting the blinds, peering into the darkness, taking stock of the cupboards. When the girls finished their snack he cleared the table and led them upstairs to a little room under the eaves. There were twin beds and on each a neatly folded white nightgown. He showed them the bathroom, where matching bags of toiletries had been set out. After they got ready for bed—brushing their teeth side by side at the sink like small children, an intimacy both forced and welcome—he came in and took their old clothes away. They didn’t ask why. They had not yet begun to ask questions, though they had plenty. That was the last they saw of their shorts and T-shirts. He watched them fold down their sheets and climb into their beds and then drew the door gently shut behind him. “You can keep the light on or turn it off,” he said, in his low, pleasant voice. “It’s up to you.” Hannah would have been inclined to choose light, but Callie promptly switched off the dusty lamp on the nightstand between them, and Hannah did not object. She didn’t want Callie to think she was afraid.
After he withdrew from the room, they heard a key turn in the lock, a bolt slide neatly into place.
Callie leaped up and flew to the window, pushing aside the plain white curtains and posing transfixed in the faint moonlight that slipped through a narrow breach in the clouds. After a minute Hannah followed. They stood together, their nightgowns merging into a single white blur. The darkness made the strange landscape otherworldly; their surroundings were a mystery. (Not until the next day would they catch their first glimpse of the dense woods, the jagged mountains.) Callie pushed the window open and leaned out into the night, gulping in the chilly mountain air, her long, golden beauty-pageant curls falling forward. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel!” Hannah said in a whisper, laughing, because she had been thinking of fairy tales since their arrival at the isolated lodge, and also because it was a relief to laugh, a sharp and surprising pleasure. But Callie scowled. “Spare me,” she said, her voice full of scorn—for what? All things childish or whimsical, Hannah guessed. Hannah was childish, Callie thought, feeling superior. Framed by the window, they whispered in the dark, offered up wisps of their lives back home, their impressions; kept their fears to themselves.
Downstairs, the kidnapper paced. Unseeing. He listened for their breath, thought he could feel it, like waves on a rocky shore.
* * *
The girls slept better than they should have, and in the morning they found that the kidnapper had unobtrusively liberated them: the door was unlocked. Their steps were quiet on the sturdy wooden stairs, and the man didn’t seem to hear them until they had crossed the big room to the kitchen area, sparsely but neatly furnished, stopping just a few feet behind him. They stood like storybook children in their long white nightgowns. Hannah registered once again how pleasant-looking he was—and how handsome, though it made her feel strange to catch herself thinking this. Tall, with dark hair waving neatly back from a sculpted face. Old, of course, from the girls’ perspective—but in that movie-star way that made age almost irrelevant. Kidnappers, in Hannah’s imagination, had been scruffy, unkempt, unwashed, faded-flannel-wearing, with blunt features and cruel wet lips. Like men she had glimpsed at truck stops. This kidnapper looked like the perfect English teacher might, had he walked straight out of a television set. She felt shy; she knew shyness wasn’t necessarily the most appropriate reaction to the situation. As if to compensate, she quickly inspected the room for weapons: no TV-style gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans; no cruel knives resting suggestively on countertops; no chains, no handcuffs. Hannah felt herself blush when she saw that he had caught her inspecting the room for the paraphernalia of danger. The flicker of amusement she discerned seemed to imply that he knew exactly what she was thinking.
If so, he said nothing, and with the same sense of inappropriateness, she found herself appreciating his tact. Callie did not share Hannah’s appreciation; she would have preferred candor, cards on the table. “Girls! Good morning,” the kidnapper said cheerfully, sounding more paternal than criminal. “Help yourselves.” There was a box of Rice Krispies on the worn wooden table. A carton of milk, a bottle of juice. He had set out bowls and spoons and glasses, indicating the girls’ places. They sat.
The sun shone as brightly and purely as it ever had. The air that drifted in through the open windows smelled sweet and mossy. Hannah and Callie asked no questions, and the man offered nothing but light, pleasant banter; no explanations, no threats, no apologies. “I hope you were comfortable upstairs,” he remarked rather formally, no dark undercurrents in his voice. “I love the sound of the wind in the trees, myself, and the smell of the woods. If you were city girls, of course, it might be a bit of an adjustment, but you’re both accustomed to isolation. If you listen hard, you can hear all sorts of animals in the woods—you should try it tonight,” he added, flashing them a quick grin. His teeth were white and even, his nails neat and immaculately clean. Everything about him vouched for his harmlessness. The girls listened and ate their Rice Krispies. How easily charmed they were, the kidnapper thought, almost happily.
Later that summer, when they had not only the courage and presence of mind but also pressing reasons to ask the obvious questions (What do you want with us? What are you planning to do with us? Why us?), it was somehow too late. Much later, Hannah would wonder what might have been different had they given voice to their curiosity that morning, had they resisted the seductions of sun-warmed pine and breakfast. Might everything have been different? (And how different would they have wanted it to be?—that was the question doomed to lurk wordlessly beneath the surface, unconfessed.)
But for the moment it did not seem urgent to press him. After breakfast he presented them with new clothes: plain dresses of stretchy cotton jersey, matching hooded sweatshirts, packages of Hanes underwear, white canvas sneakers. (In the weeks to come they would go barefoot, mostly; later, when it was over, their sneakers would look practically new. Callie would want to keep hers, but the shoes would be taken from the girls, required as evidence.) The dresses had short sleeves and fell just below the knee; Hannah’s was dark green, and Callie’s navy blue. Callie enjoyed all costumes and took to this one willingly; she was well aware that this prim garment flattered her blue eyes, hung gracefully on her lengthening frame. Hannah noticed that sometimes Callie even adopted a slightly revised way of moving, better suited to her new attire—a little more demure, almost somber. Hannah examined the dresses closely to determine whether Callie’s was nicer in any way or more flattering, but she had to admit that they were identical; each the correct size, and each color chosen to complement their respective hair and complexions. (Eventually they would try switching them, just for a change, and he would insist that they trade back.) That first morning, when they traipsed downstairs to display themselves, he regarded them with satisfaction, as if they represented an accomplishment, a minor victory.
It was Hannah who asked, that first day, what they should do. What he wanted them to do. He was sitting on the cracked brown leather couch, reading a book. Callie glared at Hannah, as if the question were somehow beneath their collective dignity. But if there were rules, Hannah wanted to know what they were; that was the kind of child she was.
The kidnapper looked up. The question took him by surprise. He waved his hand toward a tall bookcase on the other side of the room. “Play,” he said. “You’ll find lots of books and games and puzzles and things over there. I’m sure you can find something to amuse yourselves.” Play. Later that would remind Hannah of the scene in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in which Miss Havisham instructs poor bewildered Pip to play with the supercilious Estella. At the time, the command seemed perverse: how do you play with someone you hardly know, with someone else you hardly know as an audience? We need something with rules, Hannah thought. She went obediently to the bookcase and began rummaging through the shelves. When she found three worn old decks of cards, she sat down and began to count them, making sure each deck was complete. After a minute Callie sauntered over as if she might have other places to go, and lowered herself rather provisionally onto the braided rug facing Hannah.
Callie didn’t know any decent games, to Hannah’s secret delight, so Hannah taught her Crazy Eights and Gin Rummy, games she had learned from her mother on rainy Saturday afternoons. That’s what they did on the first day. They played cards. The man continued to read his book, but they could tell that he was also listening to them. After a while he got up and strode out to the porch, where he sat in one of the Adirondack chairs. Callie was facing the door and could see a sliver of him through the crack between the blinds and the window frame. His sweet pipe smoke crept in under the door. They were glad when he left the room, or so they believed, but there was also a sharp absence. An edge. They missed the sense of someone to please, someone who might offer praise. They noticed that they missed it, and wondered at themselves. They wondered, uneasily, if they had been boring him.
Hannah beat Callie effortlessly at first, but Callie learned fast. This interested Hannah: if you kidnapped a beauty queen and a spelling bee champion, it might make sense to assume that you had decided to acquire a pretty girl and a smart girl. But there was no denying Callie’s cleverness.
They were exceptional: exceptionally pretty, exceptionally smart. Both of them. And old enough to know it.
* * *
Once he had them, he didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Identifying them, tracking them down, rounding them up, getting them to the middle of the Adirondacks—that had been the meticulously planned part. So Hannah speculated, at first, and confirmed, later in the first week, when she found the files he had assembled on each of them. Two dust-free manila folders wedged between Edgar Allan Poe and an illustrated book about northeastern wildflowers. He must have meant them to be found, she thought—meant her to find them, even, since she was more likely than Callie to explore the bookcase. Still, Hannah was furtive, not wanting to be caught. Knowledge is always powerful; knowledge no one knows you have is even better. Callie was upstairs; he was sitting on the porch. She could see a strip of his shirt through the crack in the blinds; if he got up suddenly, she would have enough warning. She laid the folders on the floor and flipped them open.
He had all of their press clippings, Callie’s glossy pageant smiles alongside shots of Hannah brandishing her spelling trophies with a curious combination of smugness and reserve. “Local Girl Sweeps Regional Pageants, Aims for the National Stage.” “Sixth Grader Nails ‘Vichyssoise’ to Claim State Title.” Quotes from parents and teachers about their promise, their talent, their preternatural poise: “She’s an exceptional young lady,” Hannah’s sixth-grade English teacher had told the local paper. “We expect Hannah to go far.” “We’re all very proud of Callie,” the principal of Callie’s school had said. “She’s the whole package.” Who are these girls? Unreal, far away: Callie and Hannah dolls.
More disturbingly, there were snapshots. Even as Hannah studied them, trying to identify what he had seen in each of them, she began to feel as if she were being watched: Callie in a heavy winter coat, sulky, emerging from a grocery store with a grim-looking woman (surely the despised stepmother); Callie stepping onto a school bus, her back to the camera, recognizable from her long blond curls and a hint of her perfect profile. Hannah on the front steps of the library, arms full of books, her face strangely closed off, hair falling forward; Hannah trudging in the direction of home, her left foot angled forward as if she had just kicked a snowball along the sidewalk; Hannah entering a shoe store with her mother, looking back, almost as though she suspected someone was watching her.
Which someone had been. How long? How often? These were winter pictures. He had cryptic notes on each of them: “Leaves for school 8 am. Walks. Same route every day, always alone. Arrives 8:15.” And worse: “No sign of friends.” Had there been other girls in the running? Had he winnowed down a longer list? She tried to imagine him prowling through Glastonbury, Connecticut, snapping pictures, unnoticed, alarming no one. Maybe she had even seen him, or perhaps her parents had.
This was what Callie had meant when she told Hannah, during a quick gas station stop when they were still on the road, that he had chosen them. Did Callie know about the files? About the scouting missions?
A shadow crossed the floorboards in front of her, and a hand brushed her shoulder. She jumped, scattering the photos, wrenching her head around, wondering how he could have gotten behind her, busily spinning explanations, apologies. But it was Callie, not the man.
“I saw those already,” Callie said, rather loftily, poking at the files with her pointed toe. She had startled Hannah deliberately; Callie envied the other girl’s poise, liked to prove it could be shaken. “In the car, before we picked you up. He had them with him.” Callie often found ways to remind Hannah that she had been first. “See? I told you he picked us. He researched us. We were the ones he wanted.” Hannah followed Callie’s gaze to the photo of the girl with the blond curls boarding the bus.
The files didn’t change anything, exactly. But Hannah didn’t forget them. They stayed with her, like a soundtrack, sometimes ominous, often soothing. Rising and falling, setting a mood.
* * *
After five days he stopped locking the girls in their room while they slept, or when he went out. And he did go out, usually once a day. They didn’t always know where. Sometimes to the store. Later, the laundromat, though he took only his own clothes, not theirs, for obvious reasons. (They washed theirs by hand, playing Little House on the Prairie, a TV show they had seen in reruns when they were younger. They imagined bonnets, lace-up boots, a fire to tend.) People had to be searching for them, desperately trying to trace them, but they had no way of knowing: no TV, no newspapers. They didn’t know what “town” was or how far away it might be. How could there be a town? Hannah wondered when he returned one day with groceries. The world had shrunk to this cabin, these woods.
Sometimes they quizzed him as they became more at ease. “Did you go to a diner?” one would ask. “A bar?” the other would chime in. “The dentist?” “A chiropractor?” “A taxidermist!” Until finally he said no, no, and the sadness in his eyes disappeared for a moment. When he seemed happy, it was impossible to be afraid. “Where would you go?” he asked once. “If you could drive into town.” He watched them, searching, and they knew that their answers mattered. “The movies,” said Callie. “Of course!” he said. “Naturally the future actress would go to the movies. Well, trust me, Callie, there’s nothing worth seeing at the moment, so you’re not missing anything. And you?” He turned to Hannah, who had been waiting for the question and dreading it, trying to come up with an answer. Not a real answer—the truth was that she couldn’t think of anywhere in the hypothetical town that she would want to go. What she sought, as usual, was the perfect answer, the answer that would please. But her mind was blank. “Well?” he pressed, and she could tell that he saw too much, read her too clearly, knew perfectly well that there was nothing she wanted. “Ice cream,” she said lamely. “I would go out for ice cream.” He tossed his keys in the air, caught them neatly, tucked them in his pocket. “Really?” He didn’t believe her; she could see it. She didn’t even want him to. She knew it was a childish answer, and common. She had let him down.
“It’s okay,” he said, sorry to have embarrassed her. It was so easy with Hannah. “You have everything you need right here.” For a moment she thought he might ruffle her hair, squeeze her neck, pat her shoulder. Her flesh tensed, hoped. Nothing.
All the same, the next time he went out he came back with ice cream. An offering. “What about my movie?” Callie demanded, then laughed and pirouetted across the floor to disguise her jealousy.
They did not discuss running away. Not in those early days. The first time he left their bedroom door unlocked at night, Callie had positioned herself between Hannah’s bed and the door, arms spread wide, challenging. “You wouldn’t do it, would you.” It was not a question. “Do what?” Hannah had said—noncommittal, aggravating. Hannah had imagined leaving; it was impossible not to. What else was there to think about at night when she tried to fall asleep and lay for hours staring at the dark place where she knew the window was? She had seen him watching her and knew that he could sense what she was thinking, that he didn’t even hold it against her. She had pictured herself slinking down the stairs, out the front door, into the dark, the woods, searching for a road that had traffic. Trudging along in her canvas sneakers, shivering in her nightgown, her sweatshirt hastily thrown over it while Callie thrashed and muttered in her sleep. Waiting for a car to come along, not knowing whom to trust. Not knowing if an approaching car was his. Walking for miles, maybe, before coming across anyone. Or being found by someone worse—a cruel bearded man and his zit-faced sons, for instance. Dragged into their foul-smelling pickup truck, country music jangling on the radio. She pictured the man following her, rescuing her from the rednecks, driving her back to the cabin in gentle, forgiving silence.
She knew she wouldn’t go. She was waiting to find out what he had chosen them for.
In years past they had seen stories on the news: little girls who disappeared, never to be seen again. Not in one piece, anyway. They paid close attention to his moods and studied how to please him. He liked their hair loose and plain, though sometimes when it was especially hot they tied it back anyway. He abhorred makeup, and had confiscated Callie’s. He disliked anything that smacked of worldliness; at night in the dark they sometimes spoke to each other of their real lives, their crushes, their ambitions, their petty rebellions, but never to him.
He wanted them to be pure, Hannah decided. He had this crazy idea that purity was possible. He wanted them to be those storybook girls she had imagined on the first morning—gentle and untainted, in love with wildflowers and the moon. Even when he spoke of their distant futures, he encouraged lofty and improbable dreams: Callie would be a legendary actress on Broadway; Hannah would be an acclaimed yet mysterious writer; they would be impervious to their fame, untainted by success.
Where did the gun fit into this picture?
It was to protect them. To make them possible.
* * *
One night after they had finished the dishes he swung the front door open and stepped onto the porch, pulling his pipe from his pocket. He left the door wide open behind him, and night air drifted into the cabin, swirling around the girls’ bare legs, stirring their hair, reminding them of their captivity. Two enormous moths dove clumsily across the room, hurled themselves at the lantern.
“Well,” he said, his back to them, “are you coming? Hurry up, the bugs are getting in.”
As if under a spell, they edged forward, shoulders touching; they had one will, one mind. They stepped onto the porch as though it might conceal quicksand. But the floor was firm and comfortingly familiar beneath their feet. Callie seized the doorknob, pulled the heavy door shut, imagining for a moment that it locked behind them, shut them out. Felt a whisper of fear, rejected it; strode down the steps, planted her bare feet in the cool grass. Hannah followed, less certain.
He remained on the porch, puffing on his pipe.
Hannah and Callie veered to the right, away from the driveway, toward the stretch of clearing their bedroom window overlooked. The grass was thicker and longer there, tickling their ankles. A sliver of moon revealed the edge of the woods, dense and black, forbidding. After a few exploratory steps they broke into a run, feet kicking up, dresses climbing their legs, arms wide. When they reached the trees they stopped. Peered between trunks, saw nothing beyond. We could keep running, thought Hannah. Never stop until we got somewhere. A road, a house. We could crash right through those trees, Callie echoed. Keep running. He wouldn’t catch us. They hovered, listening to each other breathe. Deep in the woods, something screeched—once, then again. Hunter or prey? They grabbed each other’s hands, turned, raced back to the front of the house, the grass slick under their feet.
There he was, the bowl of his pipe glowing reddish, smoke curling away from him, rising skyward.
Nothing had changed.
After that he often allowed them to go outside at night once the last glimmer of sunset had been snuffed out behind the mountains. Their days acquired a new shape, a welcome layer of anticipation. During the sun-dappled afternoons they found ways to occupy themselves, but always now they were thinking of what night would bring, of the strange dewy glamour of pipe smoke and darkness.
* * *
They didn’t know what to call the kidnapper. He steadfastly refused to tell them his name, for reasons they couldn’t fathom. It wasn’t as if they could report him, after all. When they suggested that he make something up, he wouldn’t do that, either. “We have to call you something,” they kept insisting, but he was not persuaded.
“Why?” he asked wearily, as if the topic bored him. “Why do you have to call people something? There are only three of us here. If you’re not talking to each other, you must be talking to me, right?”
But they needed something to call him, even in their heads. They couldn’t go on referring to him as “him,” or “the man”; it was too awkward, too impersonal. So they began calling him something different every day. Every morning they named him—names that struck them as silly, impossible, names he wouldn’t like: Harry. Doug. Mort. They hoped to annoy him into telling them something real. Marvin.
It was the day they picked Eugene that he finally broke. “Nope,” he said, slamming his cereal spoon down. “Not that. You want to call me something? Call me … call me Zed, if you must. And that’s the end of that.” He carried his bowl to the sink. He never failed to clean up after himself.
“That’s not a name,” Callie objected.
“It’s what the British say instead of zee. I like it. It means nothing, but you can make it mean whatever you want. That should entertain you for a while.”
Zed. It worked, somehow. And he was right; they did try to make it mean things. The end. The last word. Nothing too cheerful, really.
* * *
One day when he was out somewhere, they took an inventory of the food in the cupboards. They tallied fifty-two cans of soup, thirty of tuna. Eighteen of beans. Fifteen jars of spaghetti sauce. Thirty-six boxes of pasta, ten of Minute Rice. Thirty-two boxes of cereal. Not to mention sacks of potatoes and onions, a freezer full of bread, gallons of juice. Nothing fancy. Just a long-term supply of inexpensive, easy-to-prepare basics.
“I guess we’re staying for a while,” Callie said. It was the most concrete evidence they had yet come across that they didn’t need to be afraid. Whatever plans he had for them, murder didn’t seem to be at the top of the list. Not for a while, anyway. Not unless he had a long winter of chicken noodle soup and canned tuna ahead of him.
They were, after all, aware that what men like Zed do to little girls is murder them. They had grown up in the eighties, and were accustomed to the lurid headlines. Children abducted, assaulted, tortured, sexually abused, found in the woods, strangled, dismembered, or, as often as not, simply gone. For days, weeks, they waited for the touch that would change everything. The hand in the wrong place. They knew what men like him really want to do to little girls. Murder is more of an afterthought. Destroying the evidence, essentially.
But he didn’t touch them.
And he kept on not touching them.
And with every day that passed, they were more curious. Curious about what he wasn’t doing to them. It wasn’t that they wanted him to. But after a while what he wasn’t doing was pretty much all they could think about.
* * *
Once a hunting lodge, the cabin retained traces of its grisly former purpose. Aside from what he called the mud room, there was just one big, long room downstairs, with a kitchen at one end. You could see marks on the walls where hunting trophies must once have hung—unstained splotches that had been protected by taxidermied torsos from the wood smoke that had darkened the rest of the walls over the years.
There were three small rooms upstairs, with slanted ceilings that made them seem even smaller. One was Callie and Hannah’s bedroom. One was his, though he usually slept in a hammock on the porch or on the couch. The third was closed, at first, like his bedroom. A mystery. “What’s in there?” Callie had asked once. “Nothing that need concern you,” he had said.
It was near the beginning of the second week when he first left them alone. They emerged from their room in the morning and there he was, waiting. Too close: if the door had opened outward, it would have hit him. “Can I trust you?” he asked, looking from one of them to the other. “You’re good girls, aren’t you? I can count on you.”
Hannah looked down at her feet and got distracted by his. Low boots, brown leather, well worn. Her father had a similar pair. “Obviously,” said Callie, with her usual scorn. Hannah wondered why this should be obvious. Because they hadn’t run away?
“Hannah?” He was different that morning; even his movements had a different rhythm: staccato. Jarring. Hannah could smell his shampoo, his toothpaste. She took a step back without knowing she was going to. His night-blue eyes narrowed, too close. “Hannah? I want you to read while I’m gone. I’ll ask you about it when I come back.” She hadn’t finished her Connecticut library books yet, to Callie’s annoyance; Callie resented being excluded. He turned and headed down the stairs, a surprising spring in his step, almost jaunty. It wasn’t until he had his hand on the doorknob that he glanced back one last time. “Don’t open any closed doors,” he tossed over his shoulder. Wondering how long it would take them.
The cabin seemed colder when he was gone.
Fairy tales, again. “Do you know Bluebeard?” Hannah asked Callie. Callie executed a quick jeté, crossing the threshold into the hallway. She didn’t like not knowing things.
Hannah took this as a no. “Never mind,” she said, as if it would be too much trouble to explain. But the truth was that she didn’t feel like telling that story: the dead wives, the instruments of torture. The door that was supposed to stay closed. She already knew what she and Callie were going to do, what they wouldn’t be able to help doing.
They inspected his bedroom first. They snuck in, as if there might be a surveillance camera, or maybe he had special powers that would allow him to sense what they were up to. They could not have said precisely what they expected to find. Something he didn’t want them to see, presumably. Family photographs? Love letters? Newspaper clippings related to some previous crime? Chains, blindfolds? Poison? At any rate, there was nothing. A high double bed with an old-fashioned iron frame dominated the room, neatly made, a faded patchwork quilt smoothed across it. Clothes were folded precisely in the dresser drawers: jeans, T-shirts, boxers, socks. Button-down shirts hung in the closet. No clock, no papers, no receipts, no loose change, no scribbled notes or shopping lists. No mess. A room that knew how to keep its secrets.
The mystery room turned out to be a storage room. A disappointment and a relief. They knew that whatever was in there wasn’t his; it had been there forever. Still, they thought it might have something to tell them. Perhaps the hunting lodge had been in his family for generations; perhaps he had been there a hundred times before. “Ancestral secrets?” Hannah whispered when Callie wrinkled her nose at the musty smell. “Ancestral mildew,” said Callie.
Mostly it was haphazardly stacked furniture: broken lamps, chairs missing legs, a sagging old sofa, stained, battered end tables. A big cracked mirror with a fancy frame. (“Mirror, mirror…” whispered Hannah. “Oh, knock it off,” said Callie.) The boxes were stuffed with the kind of outdoor gear you probably needed at a hunting lodge: long slick raincoats, waterproof boots, hats, gloves, camouflage vests. A few faintly musty old clothes looked as if they had costume potential, but most of what they found was irredeemably ugly and way too big.
There were, however, books. Four boxes of old paperbacks, pages falling out, covers worn and stained. Mysteries, Hannah saw at a glance; her mother had bookcases full of them. She grabbed the one on top. The faded cover showed a woman’s body sprawled on the floor of an elegantly appointed room. She was lying in a puddle of bright red blood and had fingernails to match, long and sharp. One of her high-heeled shoes had come off. She looked very pretty, for an obviously dead person. “Look!” Hannah said, thrusting it at Callie.
“Gross.” Callie backed away, refusing to be excited about something Hannah had found. “It looks like something’s been chewing it.”
“No, seriously,” Hannah insisted. “Look at it. This is a good find. They’re mystery novels. This one’s an Agatha Christie.”
Callie handed the book back and wiped her hands ostentatiously on her dress.
But Hannah knew she was right about the value of her discovery. She selected five paperbacks while Callie removed the last leg from a chair that was already missing three. They surveyed the room before withdrawing, saw nothing amiss. The mirror cracked their faces, proposed unfamiliar new versions of themselves. How strange, they thought, that they hadn’t seen their own reflections for over a week. They would have liked to drag the mirror with them but could think of nowhere to hide it. They turned off the light and pulled the door shut; let the dust settle and the cobwebs, lacy strands of disrupted time, fall still.
Hannah stuffed the books beneath her mattress. “Like he’d never look there,” said Callie, mocking. But he didn’t need to. They were sitting at the kitchen table playing Gin Rummy when he returned. “Find anything interesting?” The sharp edge they had noticed that morning seemed to have softened. He was himself again. “I haven’t been in that room for ages. The attic, we used to call it.”
We? The hunting lodge was family property after all. A clue.
“I figured at the very least you could use a new supply of books.” He opened a kitchen cabinet, rummaged; he had climbed a small mountain, following unmarked trails, and a light, airy peace had crept into his limbs, his mind.
Callie and Hannah searched him for some sign of disappointment, if not anger. But no, it seemed they had done exactly what he expected them to do. Their relief was shadowed by something else: a sense of anticlimax, perhaps. Callie drew a five of clubs, slid it into the run she was building, discarded a jack of diamonds. Hannah followed her lead, resumed play, thought eagerly of the books she wouldn’t have to hide.
* * *
Spending the day curled in some corner with a novel was nothing new for Hannah; it was what she would have done at home to pass the long, school-free summer days. No one had ever minded her habit of burying her nose in a book for hours on end. But Callie became jealous when Hannah tried vanishing into the musty pages of the storeroom cache; she sighed, pouted, broadcast her boredom with exaggerated drama. Hannah offered another book from the box, but Callie argued that it would make more sense if they read the same thing, and Hannah couldn’t help seeing her point. Hannah suggested that Callie could read the book whenever she herself wasn’t, but that was impractical. They both wanted to read at the same time, during the long days when they weren’t permitted to go outside lest some hiker wander by and catch a glimpse of their (surely?) well-publicized faces. Cool mountain breezes drifted through the screens, and the pine trees swayed above the lodge like gaunt giants, keeping it cool and dim. Zed tended to sit on the porch, sometimes reading, sometimes staring off into the woods or up at the just-visible peaks in the distance. Even when he was reading, a long shiny gun rested across his lap. A different gun from the one Callie had told Hannah about, the one he’d kept in the glove compartment of the car. When it wasn’t on his lap he propped it beside him. It was never far from his reach. They imagined he slept with it.
“Do you ever hunt?” Hannah asked him one afternoon. He was reading on the couch that day, the gun propped against his leg. It looked like a hunting rifle to Hannah, though her knowledge of such things was limited.
Absently, he ran a finger down the barrel of the gun. “Why do you ask?” He got this way sometimes: blank, distant. Elsewhere, almost.
With the gun at his side, it had seemed a logical enough question to Hannah.
“Oh,” he said, as if the touch of the gun had brought him back to himself. “No, I don’t enjoy hunting.”
“Why?” pursued Callie, who had come up alongside Hannah. “What don’t you like about it?”
“Pulling the trigger, among other things,” he said, rising from the couch. “Don’t you two have something better to do?” His face had gone dark. He grabbed his keys and left; they heard tires crunch on the driveway a moment later.
When they could no longer hear the car, they ventured onto the porch. They perched daringly on the Adirondack chairs, squinting into the sunlight. Through the trees, they could make out a bit of the road at the end of the long driveway; it wasn’t likely that anyone would see them even if a car should happen to pass. Still, they made no effort to conceal themselves. They tempted fate; they weren’t sure why. But their hearts beat faster. “What would you do if someone pulled in the driveway?” Hannah said, as if she were simply making idle conversation.
“Why the hell would someone pull in the driveway?” Callie had adopted the habit of sprinkling her speech with mild profanities when she and Hannah were alone, in contrast with the demure persona she had crafted in the first days and still adopted at times; at other times she seemed to have cast herself as some worldly creature twice her own age, as if she should have a cigarette dangling from painted lips and a bit too much cleavage to be altogether tasteful. As if she had stepped out of the pages of one of the seamier detective novels from the attic.
“To ask directions, maybe.”
Callie squinted down the driveway. “Well, we couldn’t give them directions, could we? Seeing as how we don’t know where the hell we are. So there wouldn’t be much to say, would there?”
“Wouldn’t that sound suspicious? Besides, they might recognize us, don’t you think?”
“True,” Callie said thoughtfully. “Our pictures must be everywhere. I bet he checks the news when he goes into town.” She brought her feet firmly to the weather-worn floorboards. “We really shouldn’t be out here,” she said, and rose to go back inside. Hannah followed, unprotesting.
* * *
They did not venture out in the daytime again. On a dark, almost-rainy afternoon that offered barely enough light, they chose a tattered novel from their stash of musty storage-room mysteries and settled on the long stiff couch in the main room, bare feet folded under them, toenails beginning to need cutting. (Certain things Zed had not thought of.) Hannah began, reading in her best English-class style. She had just announced the discovery of a body when Callie reached out and grabbed the book. “My turn,” she said, and picked up the narrative. She read with considerable drama, throwing herself into the dialogue. “Teachers always ask me to read,” she said smugly when she finally came to a chapter break and passed the book back.
The plot unfolded quickly, enlivened by quirky villagers and curious domestic details. Hannah had half expected Callie to toss the book aside in scorn and boredom after a while, but she was surprisingly engrossed. A few chapters in, Hannah realized that he was watching them. Zed. Standing in the doorway, face inscrutable, he managed to give the impression that he had been there for a long time. She couldn’t imagine how he had entered the room so quietly that they hadn’t been aware of it; her skin tingled at the idea of being watched so surreptitiously. When Callie next looked up—after reading a great sentence in which someone remarked upon how unpleasant it was to have a body in the house—Hannah nudged Callie’s shin with her knee and cocked her head ever so slightly in the direction of the door; Callie glanced sideways and saw him too.
She snapped the book shut. “Take a picture,” she said, “it’ll—”
“Last longer,” he said. “I know.” He waved his hand. “Don’t stop on my account. The novel is trash, of course—but agreeable trash, and it beats playing cards all day. Carry on. But don’t spook yourselves to the point where you start seeing villains lurking behind every curtain and you’re afraid to go upstairs at night.” He crossed to the kitchen and began poking around in the cupboards.
The girls resumed reading, but now they were self-conscious. Zed returned a few minutes later with a plate of saltine crackers and cheese: a rare between-meal indulgence. He pulled up a rocking chair and placed the plate on the couch between them. “I’ll share if you let me play,” he said.
“We’re not playing,” said Callie. “We’re reading.” She handed him the book and grabbed a cracker.
“What’s the difference?” His tone suggested he was half joking but that the joke was with himself or perhaps with people in his head; it did not concern the girls at all. They knew that flicker of distant amusement by then. He flipped through the pages, found exactly the place where they had stopped, and began reading.
He sounded like a movie voice-over. As if he had written the book himself, or belonged to its world. He made it seem as if they were in that world, all three of them. The body was upstairs. The murderer lurked nearby. They were all suspects. Everyone had a motive. They could have listened to him forever.
* * *
Storms were rare that summer. Mostly the weather seemed to be toying with them. Thunder grumbled low in the distance, never coming nearer; or mute lightning flickered above the mountains, unanswered by thunder. Or the air would become bloated with rain, heavy and oppressive, even inside the lodge, and they would all listen, tense, for the first drops to spatter across the roof. Needing them to. And they would not.
Like them, the sky at those times seemed to be waiting. Straining toward something not yet within reach.
Callie was braver than Hannah with Zed. Hannah loved to listen to him—liked his low voice—and his slow, steady movements often soothed her, like wind in the trees. But she waited for him to come to them: to begin a conversation, propose an activity, make a request. Callie asked questions. She even provoked him, sometimes, as if to see what he would do; to see if there were limits, and what lay beyond them. Hannah could only admire Callie’s courage from a safe distance while she herself hung back, watchful and wary, wishing she were bolder, more reckless: that was the kind of girl she would have liked to have been.
Sometimes Hannah worried that Callie would go too far, though she couldn’t help wondering what “too far” was, and what might cause it to happen. And one evening as they finished up their macaroni and cheese by the glow of an old oil lantern and lightning bugs flickered outside the window, Callie pushed him as far as she could.
“So have you ever been married?” she asked, without preface, after gulping the last of her milk.
“No,” he said shortly, rising from the table.
“Why not?” she pressed.
“Clear the table, Hannah, if you’re done eating. You can wash the dishes, Callie.” His voice seemed steady and unperturbed, but Hannah, watchful, was sure she saw a shadow cross his face.
“Okay,” Callie agreed, “but why won’t you answer? I’m just curious. I mean, here we are, after all. And you know everything about us. It only seems fair for us to know something about you, right?”
Hannah stacked plates and silverware, balanced glasses on top, carried them to the sink. Her nerves jangled with alarm. Careful, Callie.
They never mentioned the strange truth at the center of everything: that the three of them were not, in fact, a happy, normal family summering at a cabin in the woods. That he had kidnapped them—not even randomly, on a whim, but deliberately, efficiently, after much planning. That they were all participants in an inexplicable crime, that here was not where they were supposed to be.
Zed crumpled his napkin into a tiny ball, rose from the table. “Careful, my little friend.” His voice was calm, but Hannah sensed that his heart had sped up; she felt her own heart respond, keeping pace, and a drop of sweat trickled down the back of her neck. Now, she thought. Now is when something will finally happen. She set the dishes on the counter beside the sink, turned the water on, held a finger under the faucet so she’d know when it was hot. Callie stayed put.
“Is that what we are? Your little friends? Like your pets or something? You don’t tell us anything. Maybe we could understand you better if we knew more about your life.” Callie stood up and the lantern lit her hair in a fiery halo. She looked outrageously beautiful. Hannah, awed and envious, wondered how he could refuse to tell Callie anything.
He seemed to soften. “Let us just say that women have always disappointed me, one way or another. Don’t push it.”
“Are women more disappointing than men, do you think?” Callie still stood beside the table, making no move toward the dishes. Hannah noticed that the water had begun to scald her hand. She plugged the drain, squirted detergent, turned the water down low so she could hear the answer.
“Of course they are,” Zed said, his composure more alarming than open anger. “They’re more corrupt.” Hannah turned the faucet on full blast, hoping to discourage Callie from persisting. Goosebumps had sprung up on Hannah’s clammy arms. The danger in the room seemed to be bouncing off the walls.
“What do you mean by that? Corrupt how?” Callie moved slowly toward Zed, her eyes flashing.
Zed stood his ground, shadows shifting on his face as the lantern flickered. “Someday you may know what I mean. Or Hannah might be able to tell you.” Generally pleased to be drawn into Callie and Zed’s exchanges, in this case Hannah sensed an unearned insult. Why would she, now or ever, have more access than Callie to knowledge about corruption? Female corruption, specifically? We aren’t even women, after all. Just girls.
Was she corrupt already, or merely destined for corruption? How did he know? What did he know about her that he wasn’t telling her?
Hannah rinsed the dishes, one by one, and slid them into the soapy water. She wanted to throw off the balance in the room, somehow, but felt powerless. By this time Callie seemed driven—possessed, almost; Hannah wasn’t sure she could have stopped if she had wanted to. “What about your mother? Was she disappointing? Is she corrupt?” Callie demanded. Startled by the violence of the questions, Hannah allowed a plate to slip, strike the edge of the hard porcelain sink. The clatter jarred her nerves, but the others didn’t seem to hear. Callie was generating a tangible field of intensity. The room hardly felt big enough to contain her. Hannah turned from the sink, wiped her wet hands on her dress, let the lip of the sink dig into her back. Waited to see what would happen.
“Or your sister,” Callie added. “You have a sister, don’t you?” At last, his anger surfaced, flared. Hannah saw a vein pulsing in his forehead. He took a step forward; it hardly seemed voluntary. Callie had her eyes fixed on his, as if she were drawing him to her, exercising some mysterious power. It crossed Hannah’s mind in an unwelcome flash that Callie might, in some bizarre way, be trying to seduce him. A sickness coursed through her. They had excluded her, forged some electrical connection of which she was not a part.
But his face closed abruptly, breaking the spell. “My mother is not your concern, and I have no interest in discussing her with you,” he said coldly, and left them.
“So he does have a sister,” Callie said thoughtfully, pretending to be perfectly unruffled though her flushed cheeks betrayed her.
Hannah was thinking the same thing: he had given them a rare clue. She filed it away.
* * *
At such dark, tense moments they remembered to be afraid, remembered that they were the complicit prisoners of a man about whom they knew nothing, a man whose motives and intentions were inscrutable. At such moments they wondered what was going to happen to them. But mostly they did not. Mostly they lived from moment to enchanted moment, competing for Zed’s attention, slipping into the strange and intriguing territory of each other’s minds. They drove out thoughts of their distraught parents, their real lives, their grim knowledge of what bad men do to little girls. They fell into a regular habit of reading mysteries out loud; they sometimes even acted out scenes. They ate salty, preservative-laden comfort food from cans and mixes. Every night seemed oddly festive, like a party. They sat together at the kitchen table, picking happily at Kraft macaroni and hot dogs or whatever dubious concoction was on the menu. Zed was almost always at his best then, talkative and benevolent. The girls waited impatiently for it to get dark so that they could light the candles and the lantern and—if they were lucky, and he was in a good mood—maybe venture outside. The world they only ever encountered by starlight seemed unreal, like some magical realm to which they had been lucky enough to discover the key: Oz, Narnia, Wonderland. There were raspberry bushes at the edge of the woods behind the lodge, and they learned to pick berries in the dark. When they went back inside they could see the red berry juice mixing on their fingers with blood from the thorns. Some nights Callie and Hannah danced on the lawn to music that was only in their heads, whirling in circles until they collapsed.
Always, there was Zed, barely visible in the darkness. Watching.
* * *
Hannah slept neatly: on her back, arms at her sides, like a doll. Or a corpse. Neatly and lightly—the slightest sound or motion woke her, not abruptly but smoothly; she glided easily from one world to the other. For this reason she became aware of Zed’s nocturnal visits sooner than Callie, who slept like a fish on a dock, flipping wildly from side to side, gasping and muttering. When Hannah first heard their doorknob turn—or did she only sense it?—she lay perfectly still and opened her eyes the merest slit. She had long ago mastered the art of pretending to be asleep; she liked her mother to wake her for school in the morning, even if she had been fully conscious for hours. Her mother would come in after she had made breakfast, smelling of coffee and bacon. From this childish habit she had acquired the idea that people’s best selves might be revealed in such moments: moments when they thought themselves unobserved. A wave of cooler air told her that the door had opened. The hallway beyond was unlit, and she couldn’t make him out right away; but after a minute, a dark shape emerged in precisely the space where she knew he must be, the spot from which her too-keen senses had felt the air being gently displaced. He didn’t move into the room but remained framed in the doorway, his gaze moving back and forth from Callie’s bed to Hannah’s. The moon lit a single glint in his eye. Hannah lay rigid with anticipation, every muscle painfully tensed, wondering what was next. Perhaps now was the moment, the unspoken something they had been waiting for; perhaps he had come to murder or molest them. Hannah didn’t believe this, not really, but her body, relying on more primitive instincts, feared it nevertheless. She could hardly hear anything but the blood pounding in her ears. Still, she heard him sigh. A faint sigh, nothing more than a gentle expulsion of softly held breath. As if in sympathy, a light gust of wind stirred the curtains, crept across her skin, blew a single strand of hair across her nose, tickling. She thought she would burst.
Then he retreated. Without another sound, he pulled the door shut behind him.
Hannah relaxed her muscles, one by one, beginning at her toes and climbing toward her face.
It took a long time to let the tension go.
After that, Zed appeared in the doorway most nights. His behavior was exactly the same on each occasion. Hannah didn’t tell Callie until after the third time. By then, the pleasure of having a secret had worn off; this new development required analysis and discussion. Hannah felt less threatened than puzzled, and longed for Callie’s unsparing take on Zed’s behavior. Callie, however, didn’t believe her: “There’s no way I would sleep through that,” she said. “Your imagination is twisted, that’s all.” Nevertheless, she promised to stay awake that night in order to verify Hannah’s account. She lasted only a couple of hours before Hannah heard the telltale shift in her breathing, and once again she slept solidly through Zed’s appearance. This strange knowledge remained Hannah’s alone. He was Hannah’s, in a way, for the first time. And there was something to be said for that.
Although Callie professed skepticism about Hannah’s story, it wasn’t long after Hannah told her about Zed’s visits that she announced her escape plan: not a plan to escape, but a plan for its own sake. A scheme, a plot, elaborate and labor-intensive. Late at night, in the dark, when he was on the porch: that was when Hannah and Callie talked, quietly, both of them looking straight up toward the slanting ceiling they couldn’t see.
Hannah tried to talk her out of it. It wasn’t necessary to make some crazy plan, she said. If they really wanted to leave, they could waltz out the front door—when he was out, or while he slept. Perhaps even right in front of him. Would he stop them? Really? He had never laid a hand on them. Impossible to imagine that he would grab their arms, their waists, haul them back. Tie them up, lock them in. He wasn’t like that. Besides, where would they go if they did escape? As far as they knew, there was nothing for miles around.
“I just want to make a point,” Callie insisted. “To show him that we could if we wanted. Even if he locked us up. Obviously we aren’t really going to do it.”
“What if it makes him mad? I mean, what if…” Hannah couldn’t find words for what she meant. What if acting as if they were in danger somehow made it true?
“He won’t know about it unless we want him to,” Callie pointed out. “And that would only be if … if we felt like we needed to make a statement or something.” She sounded defiant and a little shifty, as if even she knew that her logic didn’t really hold up. What are you thinking, Callie? For once Hannah couldn’t tell.
“He has a car and a gun,” Hannah pointed out. “Well, more than one gun. He’s twice our size. He knows where we are. On a map, I mean. I don’t really see what kind of meaningful statement we can make. Or why we would want to. Unless you know something I don’t.”
“You don’t understand anything,” Callie said. Sometimes it seemed to Hannah that they exaggerated their personality differences to make sure that they didn’t turn into each other. Sometimes it seemed to be happening anyway: Hannah becoming Callie; Callie becoming Hannah. It was what Hannah wanted: to be like Callie, to be brash and bold, to get her way.
So Callie, part-Hannah herself, knew all along that Hannah would help with her plan, even if neither of them was able to be honest about what it was that they were doing and why.
Anyone who’s ever watched a movie or read a book knows how to make a rope out of bedsheets if it becomes necessary to plot an escape. Typically you use your own sheets because that’s all you have, but Hannah and Callie were lucky enough to find old threadbare sheets in the storage room. They prepared their materials when he went out, ears alert for the sound of his car approaching. The sheets tore easily; teeth worked as well as scissors. Adding each ragged ribbon to their growing pile, they shredded until all of the sheets had been reduced to perfect tatters. The repetitive shriek of splitting fabric was strangely gratifying, the dusty afternoon hush of the cabin heavier than ever, afterward. They stashed the evidence of their labor under Callie’s bed. From then on, the noisy part of the project behind them, they dared to work in the dark, on the floor of their room, when they were supposed to be sleeping. At intervals they paused, ears straining, to make sure he hadn’t slipped quietly in from the porch, wasn’t mounting the stairs, listening outside their door. Later it chilled them to realize that he must have done one or all of those things, unbeknownst to them; they were never in nearly as much control as they imagined. But at the time they thought they were working in absolute secrecy. Speaking only in whispers, they tied the bed-length strips together, end to end, to make triple-length ropes. Once they’d made three of these they braided them tightly. Then they made another just like it and tied the lengths together as firmly as they could. The rope they ended up with was longer than it needed to be. They knew that because they tested it one night, saw it puddle on the ground as they let it out. It didn’t even look all that strong. But then it wasn’t as if they needed to escape from a tower. Their rope needed to do no more than lower them from the second floor of a rather squat hunting lodge. They probably could have jumped from their window without serious damage, had it come to that. But that was never the point. Especially, they told themselves, since they never actually planned to escape.
The likelihood that their rope would never be put to use didn’t stop them from crouching on the cool floor for three nights running, ghostly pale in their storybook nightgowns, working as efficiently as they could. They’d both start if they heard an owl or a bat. Every now and then they would whisper about strategy or argue about the design. “Pull harder,” Hannah would hiss, as they tested two sheets they had fastened together. “Tie one more knot if you’re worried,” Callie would whisper back. The old sheets they had found all had patterns—flowers, stripes, birds—and they were every color imaginable. Had they seen their creation in the daylight, it would have been garish, absurd: a rope fit for a circus. But in the dark, the colors faded to indistinct shades of gray, as if they had braided gloomy shadows into it, or dipped each section in blood. In the dark it looked serious: serious enough to satisfy them, and to make them uneasy.
When they had tied the last knot, tested it as well as they could, and declared it complete, they coiled up the rope and hid it under Callie’s bed, which was the one nearer to the window. They tied one end around one of the metal legs as securely as they could.
It was ready to go. “Just in case,” Callie said—for the first time—and Hannah nodded, solemnly. In case of what?
In the days that followed they conferred sometimes about what to do with the rope—how to make their statement, whatever that statement was to be: That they could have left whenever they wanted, but had chosen not to? That he could trust them? They couldn’t decide, and so they postponed any action, growing accustomed to its presence, curled beneath Callie’s bed. Secretly they were relieved to have absolved themselves, at least for the time being, of the need to act.
A week or so later, they heard something thud against their window late one night. They were already asleep, but both sprang awake. “What was that?” Callie demanded, sitting up.
“Something hit our window,” Hannah said, her voice unsteady. “It sounded like someone threw it.”
Callie swung her bare feet to the floor, ran for the window. “Be careful,” Hannah said lamely, and then followed her.
They stood looking down onto the dark grass for a minute before they noticed anything. Then, as they watched, a tiny pinpoint of light they had disregarded at first—dew catching the moonlight, they had thought, if they thought anything at all—suddenly flared up and began to spread in a widening spiral, growing taller and angrier as it raced. At last it burst into a bonfire and burned furiously for a few minutes more. He must have used gasoline or something, Hannah thought, as blue and green flames flashed out from the hot core. To make it burn so fast and so bright.
And then it died, leaving a big glowing spiral on the lawn.
They checked the leg of Callie’s bed where the end of the rope had been tied. They weren’t at all surprised to find that it was gone.
They never spoke of what they had seen, not to Zed, and he didn’t mention it the following day or ever. They had made their statement; he had made his. One more indecipherable clue.
* * *
What they liked best were the nights when he allowed them to go outside in the dark—not only because they craved fresh air and the chance to stretch their legs, run at full speed, touch the grass, but because this reckless permissiveness struck them as evidence that he knew them, that he understood that they would find magic in the woods despite the mosquitoes and the damp, that he trusted them to see what he saw, love what he loved. And not to run. One night they lay outside on the mossy ground and looked up at the sky. The stars were outrageously thick and deep. This impressed Hannah more than it did Callie, who claimed that they were pretty much the same in Arrow, Nebraska, and had never done anybody much good. “Who ever said the stars were supposed to do anything?” Hannah demanded.
“Girls,” Zed said softly, lying between them—not very close. Not touching or even close to touching. The three were well spaced out on the grass, each laying claim to a private territory. “Shush. Don’t fight. Just look.” It wasn’t like a movie; he didn’t name constellations for them or offer pseudophilosophical pronouncements about life or human irrelevance. They just looked and drifted.
For a while they were quiet. The stars got deeper the longer they looked. But even with Zed’s body disturbingly between them, Hannah could eventually feel Callie getting bored and restless, so although Zed jumped a little when she next spoke, Hannah was expecting it.
“Zed, do you have any kids?” she asked abruptly.
Hannah thought she could feel him almost vibrating; he was furious, she thought, or else very sad, grief-ridden. She would have bet on anger.
After a minute he peeled himself neatly off the ground and went inside without saying a word, without brushing the sticky wet pine needles from his back.
“What did you do that for?” Hannah asked Callie, already missing the moment they had lost.
Callie tossed a fistful of pine needles in the air, let them fall back on both her and Hannah. She missed him already. “I just wanted to know.” They stayed on the ground, hoping to wait out his mood. “Don’t you get sick of not knowing anything?”
“Well, you’re not going to find out anything important just by asking.” Hannah was annoyed that Callie could think even for a minute that it could be so simple, that the truth would yield so easily.
Callie didn’t think it was simple; she believed certain risks were worth taking. “Why the hell not?” she said. “You want everything to be so complicated.”
This was true, Hannah supposed. Then again, everything was complicated. Even Callie would have had to admit that.
* * *
Once they heard a dog bark. They were at the kitchen table eating Cheerios when they all heard it. They were accustomed to coyotes, owls, bats, loons, other animals the girls couldn’t even identify by their calls. Not dogs. It took them a minute to realize why this was significant, why Zed’s coffee sloshed over the rim of his mug as he shoved his chair back from the table.
Then they got it. Dogs mean people.
Zed was on his feet in no time, pulling the blinds aside to check out the invasion. Callie and Hannah sat frozen, spoons halfway to their mouths. The dog sounded happy, Hannah thought. Playful. Not lost, not angry, not afraid, but as if it were having a good time. Hikers? Picnickers? Search dogs?
Zed turned away from the window. Somehow his rifle was now in his hands, knuckles sharp and bloodless. “Upstairs,” he said. “In your room. Don’t make a sound. Don’t go near the window.”
They left their cereal bowls on the table and raced upstairs.
Hannah and Callie lay corpse-still on their beds for perhaps an hour, only daring to whisper, long after they had stopped being able to hear the dog. They were half-afraid, half-excited, though they could hardly have explained why.
But they never heard the dog again—that one or any other. Mystery unsolved. There’s really no such thing as the middle of nowhere, they were reminded. They were still in the world. A dog could wander onto their front porch and change everything. The world was looking for them. It had to be.
* * *
For the first couple of weeks or so Zed was always clean-shaven, and then gradually, as weeks stretched into a month, a dark shadow began to assume the definite contours of a full-fledged beard.
“Why are you growing a beard all of a sudden?” Callie asked (though she liked it), and he stroked it curiously with his fine, bony hands, as if half surprised to find it there.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Does there have to be a reason for everything?” His first words offered a nonanswer to Callie’s question, but when he posed his own question he turned to look at Hannah as if responding to some challenge she had not even dared to voice.
Yes, she thought. There does.
They noticed other changes, too, as the summer wore on. He left the house less often. He spent more time sitting on the porch with his gun. He asked fewer questions. Every now and then, when one of the girls appeared unexpectedly, he’d look at her blankly, as if just for one unbearable instant he no longer recognized her.
The change was gradual, though; gradual enough so that they didn’t think about it much. Besides, there was always the chance that this was normal, and the early weeks had been an aberration. How could they know?
* * *
They had been working their way through the detective novels from the storage room for weeks when he tossed a book at them one day, one of the old, serious-looking, plainly bound hardcovers from the shelves in the main room. He’d been reading it himself for a day or two, but he was clearly not the first to crack its spine; it was a much-read volume, worn and dog-eared. “You read too many novels,” he said, as the book landed on the couch between them. “It’s lazy. You should mix in some poetry. This might appeal to your ghoulish tastes.”
It was a volume of Robert Browning’s poems, and for the most part he was wrong: they were not ready for Browning’s dark, driven dramatic monologues, the voices of renaissance dukes and painters and dissolute priests. They struggled through a few of them because they didn’t want to let him down. But they were bored, and a little confused, and resentful. They missed their gloomy country houses, genteel suspects, politely but relentlessly mounting body counts.
But one poem did please them; one poem was short and straightforward enough to capture their imaginations: “Porphyria’s Lover,” in which the speaker’s beloved ventures through rain and wind to pay an illicit nighttime visit to his cottage; puzzled as to how he might keep her, preserve her, possess her most perfectly, he settles upon the only action possible. While she rests her pretty head against his shoulder, he takes her yellow hair and wraps it around her pretty neck—and yes, strangles her, and there they sit, in perfect companionship, as the night wears on.
“Oh my God,” said Callie. She was truly shocked, for once—Callie, who prided herself on keeping her cool, her languid aura of boredom. The last line, which she had just read aloud, still hung in the air, the one about how God had not said a word—not as the murderer sat with the dead woman all through the night. “That’s seriously messed up.”
“He’s a madman,” Hannah remarked uneasily. She felt a need to counter the narrator’s strange confidence in his own logic—not just in her own mind but aloud, on the record in some way.
“Crazy. Obviously,” Callie agreed.
Only then did they see Zed in the doorway. Leaning against the door frame, arms crossed in front of his chest. “Don’t stop on my account,” he said when he realized that they had turned their attention to him. And then retreated, began tidying the immaculate kitchen.
* * *
That was the night he touched Callie’s hair.
Her yellow hair. Like Porphyria’s.
Always Callie. Hannah suffered. Full of nameless sorrow, she thought she might die of longing that night—of the candlelight, soft and beautiful and full of all the things she could not have or be. Or of something darker, something she didn’t understand.
Callie’s fault. Callie wanted to dress up; she was obsessed with the femmes fatales in the detective novels and wanted to try the role for herself. She wrapped her top sheet strategically around herself like a kind of demented Grecian evening gown, and she constructed an elaborate updo out of her golden curls with an old rubber band, a safety pin, a scrap of ribbon, and a couple of sticks. She stuck some daisies in it to complete the effect. (He brought little bouquets of wildflowers in sometimes, to make up for their not being able to go outside. He put them in drinking glasses on the kitchen table. It was sweet, they thought.) She rigged up some jewelry out of the shiniest objects she could find in the storage room. Inclined to be critical, Hannah forced herself to be fair: Callie was just playing, really. Dressing up was her favorite form of play; she loved to decorate herself. She was a tremendous narcissist, even for a twelve-year-old. But she was also a born actress. She required costume changes.
Although Callie should have looked completely ridiculous, Hannah had to concede that somehow she made the makeshift ensemble work. She adopted a sultry accent and a languid way of moving, and it was as if she had cast a spell on herself, Cinderella-like, transforming rags to finery. Maybe it was the candlelight. To Hannah it seemed like magic, and not white magic, either. She was dizzy with jealousy.
And Zed was furious. All the vague humor and improbable kindness drained from his after-dinner face as Callie descended the stairs, staging a grand entrance. Hannah put down the dish towel and moved away from him instinctively, away from the charged field that suddenly rearranged the air around him. As Callie swayed past him, batting her eyelashes, his arm shot out as if it had a life of its own. He grasped the twisted nest of curls that was falling from the top of her head where she had tried to pin it. He pulled it all down, and not gently. The pins and sticks and daisies fell to the floor. He twisted the long coil of Callie’s beautiful hair around his hand and wrist, almost absently. His eyes were dark and strange, and Hannah couldn’t really look at them; she hardly even breathed. Callie raised her eyes to his, and some current seemed to dart between them. He pulled her hair. Just a little, then a little more.
“Stop it!” Hannah was half-dismayed to hear her own voice; she had hardly known that she was going to speak, hadn’t realized she was crying. Zed dropped Callie’s hair as if it were on fire, and Hannah turned and ran, wrenching the door open and fleeing into the cool dark night, knowing he would follow, knowing it was up to her to break the spell.
That was near the end.
* * *
“I imagine you girls would like to go swimming,” he said after dinner one night, entirely out of the blue. It was a particularly warm, muggy night and very still. Moths flung themselves at the lantern that hissed on the table.
It was true: swimming had always been a part of summer, for both of them, and they had missed it, all those hot days at the lodge. But by way of idle conversation the remark seemed uncharacteristically pointless, even a little mean. It wasn’t as if he could conjure a lake or a pool in the backyard. They said nothing, waiting to see where he was going with this. They were wary; they were on their guard by then.
But he was serious. He looked from one of them to the other, blue eyes frowning. “I’m not wrong, am I? I warn you, I will think you are very strange children if you don’t want to go swimming. Hurry up and get your things if you want to go. It’s a perfect night for it.”
“Things?” Callie said suspiciously. “What things? It’s not like we have bathing suits.”
“You’ll think of something,” he said, unperturbed. “It’ll be dark, after all. Just grab towels, then.”
Still baffled, they did as he said, and stood waiting. Wordlessly he led them out the door, into the night—straight to the car. They hadn’t been in it since their arrival. It was saturated with the memory of the road trip. Their abduction.
“Get in the back,” he said. “And lie down until I tell you otherwise.”
After ten minutes or so the car turned off the comparatively smooth road they’d been winding along and headed sharply downhill on a pitted dirt surface. Losing her balance, Hannah tumbled from the seat to the floor of the car, and Callie barely avoided following her. Hannah crouched where she was, rather than attempting to scramble back up, clenching her teeth to make sure she wouldn’t bite her tongue when they hit the potholes.
Then, quite suddenly, they stopped.
“Follow me,” he said. “Watch your step.”
They followed the bobbing white circle his flashlight threw across the rough ground, everything else black. At first they could only smell the water and hear its gentle lapping, and then the light splashed across it.
“Here,” he said magnanimously, as if he’d created this body of water just for them. “This is a good place to swim.”
They kicked off their sneakers, and he averted his eyes as they turned their backs on him in the dark and pulled their dresses over their heads. Along with towels they had also each brought an extra pair of panties. This was Callie’s idea. They used them to improvise bikini tops, thrusting their arms and shoulders through the leg holes, smoothing the seats across their chests—Hannah’s entirely, boyishly flat, Callie’s boasting two tiny swollen buds—and attempting to hook the hips over their bony shoulders enough to anchor them a little. It wasn’t especially successful, but it served its purpose, more or less. Meanwhile Zed shone the flashlight away from them, across the water, elaborately respecting their modesty. When the girls were ready, he aimed the light at the water near their feet to guide them in.
The air was chilly, and they shivered a little in their underwear. When they ventured to dip toes in the water, though, they found it surprisingly warm. Even then they edged forward cautiously, their feet settling into the silty lakeshore bottom with each step. Hannah pictured dozens of tiny fish swarming around their unexpected ankles and was glad she could not see them. All they could see was the small disk of light that lay before them—nothing else, not each other, not their own outstretched arms, not the shore, not the dimensions of the lake or the woods that must have surrounded it, not the mountains that surely rose in the distance. Not the man himself, who directed the light and controlled what they saw, who could never have been far away. Nothing but the pale circle of light that beckoned them deeper into the lake, and in it, the faint waves they made themselves. That must have been what he meant when he said it was a perfect night: there was no moon, no stars. The sky was blank.
Callie was the first to plunge, naturally, when the water had reached their waists, and after that Hannah had no choice but to throw herself forward. They splashed into deeper water, flipped on their backs, and floated, eyes unfocused. They flung water toward each other and attempted blind, dizzying somersaults. They looked in his direction, sometimes, wondering if he could see them, if he was watching, but they saw nothing outside the halo of the flashlight. The water was soft and warm and seemed to hold them gently. They could hear fish jumping not far away and no longer minded; they were fish, too. They flickered through the water like mermaids, inventing strokes they’d never learned in swimming lessons. Sometimes they brushed against each other, inadvertently—their bare arms and legs soft and similar. Their unruly imaginations tried to conjure up a sense of what the man’s limbs would feel like in the water, hard and male and unclothed. They felt embarrassed, as if their thoughts could travel through the air, as if he could intercept them.
But he did not join them. Did they expect him to? They weren’t sure; the episode seemed so very strange, so unscripted, that it was nearly impossible to form expectations.
It is possible, though, that they had formed a hope—collectively, echoed silently between them. In any case, they let it go, gave themselves up to the pure pleasure of being enveloped by the water. He did not speak, and that was fine. He simply held the light. He gave them the lake, piece by piece.
And then suddenly he turned off the light. They heard the click of the plastic switch. They lifted their heads from the water, opened their eyes and closed them again, and saw no difference. Instinctively, they fell silent, treaded water. They could pinpoint each other’s location because they could hear each other’s breath, but Zed seemed to have vanished. “Where are you?” Callie asked after a moment, her voice harsh but also vulnerable. Hannah could tell that her mood had changed: Callie was angry now.
After a few seconds his calm voice carried across the water. “Why does it matter?” He was as blind as they were.
“How can you say that?” Callie demanded. Outrage vibrated in her voice.
Because it doesn’t, Hannah thought, not even knowing what she meant. It doesn’t matter, not anymore. This time Zed didn’t answer. Would it be a happy ending, Hannah wondered, if he just left them there? They would huddle all night beside the lake, shivering and mosquito bitten. When dawn came they would make their way back to the road, bedraggled. Eventually someone would find them, and it would all be over. Zed would escape, perhaps. He would never be found.
No, of course he won’t leave us, she thought peacefully. He still needs us. For what? asked a treacherous voice in her mind. How can you be so sure? What if he brought his gun? What if he slips into the water, places his hand on your head and presses it down, down beneath the surface, and eventually you don’t struggle anymore, and— Appalled, she silenced the voice, flipped onto her back, and stretched her arms out to the sides, scissoring her feet slightly to keep her balance, feeling her peace return. As she stared up at the blank sky she saw that, as her eyes adjusted, it became less perfectly dark. Low clouds captured stray light from below—maybe from towns miles away, she thought, or houses they couldn’t see—and reflected it back to the water. She could discern the outlines of the clouds, the place where the lake met the trees, a shape a few feet away that must be Callie. She had the irrational thought that the light was coming from her own gaze, that if she looked long and hard enough she could light up the woods. She sensed that Callie, out of sync with her mood, had stopped floating and righted herself, anchored her feet on the bottom of the lake, waiting impatiently. She tried to project her strange sense of calm in Callie’s direction, wanting to share it, but she could tell that Callie had become unreceptive. She tried to turn her attention inward, blocking Callie out, but her awareness of Callie’s unhappiness created a tension she couldn’t ignore, and she felt drawn in two directions: it was as if she had to be two people, herself and Callie. She grew conscious, meanwhile, that the part of her that was exposed to the air was getting chilled. But she didn’t want to stop floating.
Finally Zed said, quietly, “Enough.” His voice had moved. They turned in its direction. Hannah, obedient, swam toward him, but she felt Callie’s resentment collect itself and tremble though the water. “What if we’re not done?” Callie called out, defiant, though she was more than done with this invisible lake. As usual, Hannah admired Callie’s courage at the same time that she was annoyed by it. Why does she have to try to ruin everything?
“Then stay,” Zed said, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world. “Hannah and I will go.”
Hannah heard Callie behind her, plowing through the water toward the shore. She wondered if he had meant it; she suspected not. He had simply known that Callie would come. Somehow this knowledge made her feel both safe and sad.
As they emerged from the water onto the chilly shore, clutching their towels around themselves, teeth chattering, they saw that there was an extra light, hovering precisely where his face should be, and they smelled his familiar pipe. Wordlessly he tapped the base, tipped out the glowing ember, and ground it out beneath his heel, turning as he did so and shining the flashlight at the car. Dripping and shivering, they piled in. No one spoke.
They couldn’t have been far from the lodge when a car appeared behind them, its headlights boring into the backseat, bouncing off the rearview mirror. “Stay down,” Zed ordered, straining to make out a shape, a face behind the dark windshield. He didn’t alter his speed, but they could feel his sudden alertness, as if something newly rigid in his body communicated itself to them through the car itself, entering their own bodies through the rough fabric of the backseat, against which they had pressed their cheeks. They lay still and quiet, the tension between them suddenly gone. The other car kept up with them, pressing. Someone who knew the roads, perhaps, and wanted to go faster. Someone in a hurry, late for something they couldn’t even imagine. Someone looking for two missing girls, traced to this area. Zed kept driving, long enough that they were sure they must have gone well past the turnoff to the lodge. At last they came to a stop, and the girls listened breathlessly to the tick-tock of the turn signal, the headlights bearing down on them. They veered right. The lights swept along the left side of Zed’s car, picking up speed, and vanished.
They had turned, and the other car had stayed straight.
Silence returned. They drove on for another minute before Zed swung an efficient U-turn and headed back the way they had come. He killed the lights as they rolled down the long driveway, approaching the lodge in utter darkness.
No one had been following them. But people were looking, surely. They had to be.
Back at the lodge, he sent them off to bed as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. But he was unusually quiet, and they couldn’t help feeling that something had shifted, that things were not quite the same. It made them nervous.
* * *
The next day was cloudy, humid, oppressive, and Hannah and Callie’s sense of unease held on. Hannah walked softly, looked over her shoulder, startled at trifles: a branch striking the roof, the hiss of the water heater, the squawk of an unfamiliar bird. Callie, on the other hand, grew reckless, restless, couldn’t be still. While Zed circled the perimeter of the clearing in which the cabin was set—head down, round and round, unreachable—Callie played pageant: tried to entertain Hannah by reenacting bits of her routine, spoofing imaginary competitors. As she demonstrated her pageant walk, Hannah played judge, pretending to scribble seriously in her notebook. Callie crossed the room with strong, graceful strides, her head angled in Hannah’s direction, her lips shaping a huge smile. Pausing in front of the window she turned slightly, hand on hip, flashing her imaginary audience another dazzling grin. Even without stage makeup and a fancy dress, she conveyed something of the bewitching presence that had already won her so many crowns.
They didn’t know he was in the doorway until he had lunged across the room, almost catlike, grabbing the arm perched on Callie’s hip and wrenching it around in front of her. Hannah had been lounging on the couch, laughing; when she saw him—or sensed him, really—she curled into a ball, clasping her hands around her knees. Callie turned red, and Hannah saw, for the first time, tears in her eyes. But she didn’t struggle—she looked him right in the face, anger blazing, and her tears didn’t fall.
The first fat raindrops spattered against the windows, like the ticking of a mad clock. Zed held on to Callie’s arm. Every muscle in his body seemed tensed, his face stretched taut across bone and sinew. “Don’t do that here. Not here. Do you understand me?” He pulled her a little closer and repeated: “You understand? You’ve left that behind. It’s over.” He pushed her away, gently enough, but with such visible control that it suggested a tremendous current of power flowing beneath the surface. Callie reeled a little—more from her sense of that power than from the push itself. “Never. You hear? Never. You won’t be that girl anymore.” Then he turned and strode out of the lodge, closing the door hard behind him.
“Well.” Callie dropped onto the couch beside Hannah and crossed her legs gracefully. “So I guess he doesn’t approve of pageants.”
“But why—” Hannah sat up straight, folded her legs beneath her. She was afraid Callie would be offended, but she had to go on: “Why did he pick you, then?”
Callie twisted a long golden curl around her index finger. “That’s the question, isn’t it?” She tugged sharply at the coiled hair—once, twice; Hannah felt the twinge in her own follicles. “Maybe he meant to save me,” Callie said. She made her voice sound flippant, but Hannah knew Callie was serious. And perhaps she was also right.
Later that night Hannah awoke with a pressing feeling that something was wrong. The rain had ended almost as soon as it began, and the sky was clear again; a glimmer of moonlight revealed Callie’s bedding, twisted into its customary nest. Empty. She told herself that Callie must simply have gotten up to go to the bathroom. Unconvinced, she bolted upright, trying to ward off panic. Only then did she realize that she could hear voices downstairs, quiet and serious.
Hannah slipped out of the room and crept to the head of the stairs. Crouching on the first step, she eased her head forward until she could just see them, sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. At first, blood pulsed so hard in her ears that it was all she could hear, but their conversation became intelligible as she listened.
“I don’t understand,” Callie was saying, a sulky edge in her voice. “I thought you picked us because of who we are.” Hannah caught her breath. This was what they never spoke of, not to him.
“Not exactly,” he said.
He leaned forward, and Hannah drew her head sharply back, afraid he might be able to glimpse her. She could hear just as well without seeing—better, if she concentrated.
“It’s a waste.” He sounded very calm; there was no trace of the latent violence that had shocked the girls earlier. “A perversion. That’s why you needed me. Maybe you’ll understand someday. But listen,” he began.
“I’m listening,” Callie said. A rare subdued note had crept into her voice.
“I want you to promise me that you won’t do it anymore. The pageants. Cheapening yourself like that.”
A mosquito buzzed in Hannah’s ear, and she raised a hand to crush it. Missed. She could feel the tension in the air like a sudden chill, or a storm coming. Callie felt it too, on the other side of the wall.
When Callie finally spoke, her voice was low and steady. “Are we going home, then?” They had lived each day, as much as they could, without speaking of later. They might sketch fantasies of glamorous adulthood, but they avoided talk of their actual lives: starting a new school year, buying new clothes, listening to the newest songs on the radio, meeting new people. Later had become a hazy concept; back was unmentionable. But Callie was asking, as if it were the most normal question in the world, “Are we going back?” Hannah grabbed the railing; Callie gripped the edge of the table.
“Do you promise?” Zed said.
A strange, growing pressure inside Hannah’s head produced surges of dark, muddy colors before her eyes, and a band of sharp pain locked around her forehead.
The whole house waited.
“I promise,” Callie said, her voice oddly robotic, and so low Hannah hardly heard it.
“Say it again.”
“I promise,” Callie whispered. Hannah wasn’t even sure she had really heard it, but she felt it, as clearly as if Callie’s voice were coming from somewhere inside her own body. She felt it under her skin, in the pit of her stomach.
Did that mean they were going home? Callie believed she had made a deal, that was clear to Hannah. But had she?
Instinctively Hannah believed that if Zed had made a promise, he would not break it. But he had been careful, it seemed to her, not to promise. Not in so many words.
Hannah released her sweaty palm from the railing, straightened her cramped legs, glided swiftly back into the bedroom. Slipping between her sheets, she curled up on her side and began to breathe the long, even breaths of sleep. Callie returned, tiptoeing across the room to her bed to avoid waking Hannah.
For once, Hannah noticed, Callie didn’t drop off to sleep immediately. Lulled by the deceptive calm of her own steady breathing, she listened to Callie, whose unaccustomed stillness meant she was lying awake. If they were really to go home, how soon it would be? Had Callie meant what she said? Was Callie a girl who kept her promises? She had been willing Callie to promise, willing Zed to reciprocate. But in the back of Hannah’s mind, an unacknowledged voice was asking another question: Did she want to go home? And if she didn’t yet, what did that mean?
When she finally slipped from feigned sleep to real, she dreamed of Zed turned into a tree outside her window, while she cried because he could never come in. There was a word she could say, a magic word that would free him, but she didn’t know what it was. In the dream this was because she wasn’t good enough.
The next day and afterward, she kept waiting for Callie to tell her what had happened, since ostensibly she knew nothing. Hannah wanted to talk about it, to examine what he had said and what he had implied. You needed me, he had told Callie. Did he think Hannah needed him too?
But Callie said nothing.
* * *
The next night he allowed them to go outside, and they played hide-and-seek. By this time he seldom joined their games. He was outside, too, but they weren’t sure where. They had already discovered that playing two-person hide-and-seek outside in the dark was a tricky undertaking: there was really no excuse for being found unless you wanted to be, because the person who was It could only blunder in the darkness. The real contest was with yourself: to see how long you could bear to stay hidden. It was challenging: first you started to get bored; then cold; and finally the silence grew eerie, and you began to fight off the temptation to give yourself up. The silence in the woods was actually full of sounds: even raccoons and opossums snapped small twigs under their shuffling feet, and there were bigger animals, too. If you ventured into the woods even a little way, a tree could easily hide the cabin and its reassuring lights, if only for a moment.
Hannah was It; Callie was hiding. Hannah heard Callie run off while she counted—and Callie ran too loudly, too obviously; Hannah listened hard to confirm her suspicion that she then doubled back stealthily and headed off in another direction. It’s what she herself would have done. She thought she did hear Callie creeping back, in fact, though she wouldn’t have sworn it. After intoning “ready or not,” Hannah set off in the direction from which she thought she’d heard a telltale rustle. The best you could hope for by way of guidance in this game was an occasional shiver of branches, a quick intake of breath. A sneeze, if you were very lucky. Once she was moving, Hannah heard nothing. She skirted the edge of the woods, her steps graceful and nearly silent; she listened intently. She heard an owl, another bird she didn’t recognize, crickets, frogs. She heard the wind rush through the upper branches of the trees, though the air was perfectly still down below. She crept along and didn’t hear Callie. She circled the house, returned to her original spot, moved off in the other direction, listening. Once she heard a distinct crackle of branches a little way into the woods, farther than they ordinarily went. “Callie!” she whispered triumphantly; this was about as close as you could get to catching the hider. But no one answered, and somehow in the silence that followed she knew it wasn’t Callie but something else: a deer, maybe. She leaned against a tree for a while, listening. If Callie were in motion, Hannah reasoned, she would have a better chance of intercepting her if she stayed still.
Nothing. The owl again. Bats. She was chilled; her feet were damp; her legs scratched and stinging. The house no longer looked comforting; it was far enough away that it was cold, instead, and impenetrable. She felt somehow that it didn’t want her back, not without Callie. She had never, ever been more alone, more lonely. She felt tears at the back of her eyes, willed them away.
Hannah abandoned her spot beneath the tree and closed in on the house, wanting suddenly to touch it and make sure that it was real. She tried not to look at the glowing windows because they blinded her even more when she looked back toward the woods. She closed her eyes, reasoning that depriving herself of sight (which was useless anyway) might sharpen her hearing, and she circled the house slowly, trailing one hand along the rough wood to orient herself. Every now and then she would stop. She wasn’t even trying to be especially quiet anymore. Who would hear her? Everyone had vanished.
Soft, insinuating tendrils of panic crept into her mind, her veins. She picked up speed. Halfway down the fourth and final side of the house she walked straight into an obstacle. Warm, cotton, breathing, flat up against her entire body, since she’d had no warning. “Callie?” she gasped—absurdly happy, not even hiding it. But even in the split second before her eyes flew open she knew that it could not be Callie. Didn’t smell right; was too tall. She had walked smack into Zed. He put his arms around her as she burst into tears. She sobbed as if the world were coming to an end. She thought maybe it was. He hugged her tightly and stroked her hair. My hair too, she thought. Not just Callie’s. No one had ever hugged her so tightly. It’s okay, he kept saying. It’s okay, little Hannah. My poor little Hannah, it’s okay. Over and over he chanted it, until it became true. And even in the perfect darkness she felt wholly seen, as if her mind were inside out and all of her deepest secrets glittered like fireflies. Seen and understood, wanted in the only ways that mattered. Loved.
But in the morning he hardly looked at them and didn’t speak at all.
* * *
“Something’s wrong,” Hannah said. She and Callie were in their beds, whispering even though they knew he had not come upstairs, in fact seldom came upstairs anymore. They did not think he slept much at this point.
“Do you think there’s anything we can do?”
“I can’t think of anything,” Callie said grudgingly. It was true; Hannah couldn’t either. She had tried. He was drifting away from them. Not physically—they were still all cooped up in a hunting lodge together—but in his mind; they were sure of it. They couldn’t follow him, and he didn’t want them to.
“What do you think is the matter?” Callie asked. “You always have a theory.”
Hannah thought for a minute, flattered that Callie wanted to know what she thought, wanting to be sure her answer was as clear and true as she could make it. A mosquito had gotten in the room, and she heard it buzz. “I think…” she began quietly. “I think he thought we would make him happy.”
“We don’t.” She swatted at the mosquito in the dark.
“Did you get him?”
“Her,” Hannah corrected, having learned somewhere that only female mosquitoes bite. “Not him. No, I didn’t.” She could already hear it buzzing again.
“What do we do?” She could hear a panicky edge in Callie’s voice, not even disguised. This was significant. Hannah and Callie obsessively hid their weaknesses from each other. It was pointless, because by then they knew each other’s flaws as well as they knew their own; but it was a matter of pride. Their pride was one of the things they had in common.
Hannah didn’t know what to say. She was thinking.
They weren’t exactly afraid, even then, but they did feel uneasy. They felt decidedly uneasy, and they couldn’t reason themselves—or each other—out of it.
* * *
On the last full day the sky was a strange color: a sick yellowish gray with a hint of green, not grass green but bile green, swamp green. A swamp sky hanging low and deathly heavy over the mountains. A tornado sky, said Callie, adding that her entire town had once been wiped out by a tornado—before she was born, she added, as if this didn’t interest her much. She was mopey that day, restless and bored. She wanted to go outside. “Certainly not,” Zed said, adding that in fact he would appreciate it if they stayed away from the windows. They wondered if he knew something they didn’t. In retrospect, they thought he must have; perhaps he had heard or seen something in town. At the very least, he’d had a premonition. He prowled from window to window. Callie and Hannah sprawled on the couch, sweaty skin sticking to the cracked leather, trying to finish No More Dying Then, the Ruth Rendell mystery they were reading.
They had spaghetti and jarred sauce for dinner and still it didn’t rain, although the air felt as if it might explode. After dinner, when the sun had set, he let them sit on the porch with him, though he forbade them the yard. He turned off the lights, and they sat in pure darkness, looking at the now-familiar patterns of stars emerging above them. Bats swooped and dove. There was no wind at all. Hannah imagined that they were ghosts, visible only to others of their kind; that they belonged somehow to the darkness. He sat in his usual Adirondack chair, and Callie and Hannah shared the other, quietly tolerating each other’s sharp angles—jutting elbows, hipbones. An opossum came out of the woods and stared at them, or seemed to. Then it turned and plodded away, neither disturbed by nor interested in their presence. Thunder rumbled all around them, too far away to give them much hope, and every now and then heat lightning flickered in the distance. Every now and then, too, he said something. Hannah understood for the first time the phrase “breaking the silence,” as the quiet seemed to fall in shards around him when he spoke: his voice like a rock hurled through a window. He said there was no such thing as heat lightning. He said some people will tell you that opossums are blind, but that it isn’t true. He said they should never let anyone stand in their way if there was something they really wanted to do. He said the cabin wasn’t his, that it belonged to an uncle who only used it in the winter, that he had visited it a few times as a boy. They tried to picture him as a boy. He said that they should learn to shoot, because you never knew. He said his older sister had run away to New York City when she was sixteen. He said her life was unspeakable. He told them that he was sorry. “You know that, right, Hannah, Callie?”
They didn’t know. How could they have known? Sorry for what? But they said they did, because it was what he wanted to hear.
* * *
He came to their doorway that night. For the last time. Hannah was awake, and for once she stared right back at him, her eyes wide in the dark. She didn’t know if he could tell; he gave no sign of it. He stood there for a moment, as always, then moved softly away.
On the last morning he didn’t sit down to breakfast with them. From the start, the day felt wrong. He was out on the porch early, sitting there, staring into space. He wandered in while the girls were clearing their dishes and crossed straight to the other side of the house, moving the curtains aside and peering out. They wanted to ask what was up but sensed that it would be better if they pretended not to notice anything.
“We should probably do laundry today,” said Callie, grumbling a little, and Hannah could tell she wanted her to say no, let’s wait till tomorrow.
He spoke up instead, surprising them, turning almost cheerfully to the room. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Do something fun today. Build a fort in the storage room, turn one of your books into a play. Or something.” For just a second he put a hand on each of their heads, and they stood still, as if some kind of paralyzing force had shot through the palms of his hands into their skulls and through their bodies, rooting them to the floor, to the earth beneath it. As if they were extensions of him somehow. Then he removed his hands and headed back to the door. “Stay away from the windows,” he warned again, as he had the day before. But they thought they heard him humming something lilting and unfamiliar under his breath as he stepped outside.
They left their dishes in the sink; it felt like the kind of day when that was acceptable. They went upstairs and raided the storage room for new costumes. They found an old trench coat, some ugly hats. They tried to style themselves as detectives and began cooking up a mystery. Hannah tossed out ideas for the murder plot, and Callie, even though she was playing a detective for once and not a femme fatale, tried to figure out what she could use for lipstick. Something food-related? Tomato paste? Grape juice? They would be rival detectives. Callie would be connected to the household in which there had been a murder—a family friend, perhaps. “We’ll make it seem like you’re the murderer,” Hannah proposed. “And you won’t be, but I won’t realize that until it’s too late. And by then you’ll be dead.” Hannah scribbled this down, conscious that it wasn’t her best effort; Callie nodded listlessly. “Look, why don’t you dig through the boxes and see if you can find—”
“Shh,” Callie said. “I thought I heard something.”
Hannah stopped, and then she heard it too—though it was more as if she had felt something, somehow. As if the ground had shifted a little. They listened. There was a strangely loaded silence and then a gunshot. There was no doubting that it was a gunshot. Not in the distance—not somewhere off in the woods, not someone hunting out of season. Nearby. Home. It cracked through the humid air and ricocheted off the mountains. Hannah and Callie kept hearing it long after it had stopped.
They flew downstairs, their feet hardly touching the floorboards. Hannah paused when they got to the bottom and then veered toward one of the front windows, but Callie kept going, across the room, straight out the door, knowing something but not knowing yet what it was that she knew.
“Callie, no!” Hannah heard herself scream as Callie wrenched the door open. But she went anyway, unheeding. So Hannah followed. And there he was in his Adirondack chair, as always, except that he wasn’t, because of all the blood, and the part of him that mostly was not there, which was his head … Callie was on her knees, mindless, trying to hold on to him, kicking the gun away from where it had fallen at his feet, ignoring the police surrounding the house even though someone was yelling through a loudspeaker, something about stepping back.
Hannah crossed the porch in slow motion, staring out at the police like a zombie. Their guns were still raised, she realized. At them, at her and Callie. As if they were criminals. They must be, Hannah reasoned, not realizing then how they must look, decked out in their detective gear, like little flashers, pint-sized perverts in bare feet and drooping hats. Without thinking, Hannah raised her hands. Like a criminal, surrendering. “Callie,” she said, though her ears were pounding and she couldn’t even hear her own voice, didn’t know if she had really said it or just thought she had. But Callie looked up. She looked long at Hannah, then turned a hate-drenched stare on the police. Eventually she put her hands up too, and Hannah saw that they were bloody.
Finally they stepped off the porch and surrendered.
Copyright © 2016 Maggie Mitchell.
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Maggie Mitchell has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including the New Ohio Review, American Literary Review, and Green Mountains Review. Her story “It Would Be Different If” is included in the Bedford Introduction to Literature. She teaches English and creative writing at the University of West Georgia. Pretty Is is her first novel.