by Richard Bader
She opened the door before we could knock, in a long silver dress and hair the same color, scarlet lips framing too-white teeth. “How awfully kind of you to come!” she said. That’s how I felt, awfully kind.
“Mrs. Pettigrew?” Andy said.
“Used to be,” she said, laughing, a smoker’s laugh. “I’ve reverted to Chandler. But yes—I am Elizabeth’s mother. Call me Cassandra. Come, follow. Elizabeth will be thrilled to see you.”
She led us down a hallway into a cavernous room of stone and dark wood, a glittering chandelier hanging over a rectangle of couches and chairs where people her age sat, the women in dresses that were variations of hers, the men in blazers and khaki, like it was a Gatsby-themed costume party. We had come straight from work, exchanging lifeguard swimsuits for shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. My ancient Jeep sat in the circle driveway behind two shiny black BMWs and a silver Audi, and Andy’s motorcycle, which he and Tara rode up on.
“Everyone,” Cassandra Chandler said, “Let me introduce Elizabeth’s friends from the pool.” We hand-shook our way around the room while Cassandra handled names and connections. “My sister Helen Merrick and her husband, Richard. Elizabeth’s father Stephen Pettigrew and his new wife, Angela. And Rachel.” She raised an upturned palm in the direction of a woman standing by herself looking at pictures on a fireplace mantel.
“The wiccan,” Angela whispered to Stephen, but loud enough so everyone could hear. Helen Merrick giggled. Her husband rolled his eyes, but grinned. Rachel was younger than the others, somewhere between their age and ours.
“And of course you know Elizabeth.”
She materialized in a doorway, her white dress stark against the dark of the space behind her. It’s weird seeing someone all dressed up you’re used to seeing in a bikini. She tucked a dark brown curl behind her ear with one hand, smoothed the front of her dress with the other, and stood there, slightly hunched, like she was waiting for permission. “Hey,” she said. She waved an apologetic little wave. We did know her, but not all that well. Her invitation had surprised us.
“What’s everyone drinking?” Stephen said.
He made us gin and tonics and the four of us took them out onto a porch overlooking the hillside, the city skyline in the distance, dark clouds building over it. No one said anything for an uncomfortably long time.
“So this is where you grew up?” Tara said, because somebody had to say something. The house was huge and made of stone. It sat like a castle on top of the hill.
“The Pettigrews built it,” Elizabeth said, in a way that made it sound like the Pettigrews were somebody else’s family. “I’m mostly at my mother’s now. My father is about to develop it. Houses on the hillside. Turn the mansion into condos.” I’d noticed a backhoe off the side of the road on the ride up.
“You have brothers and sisters?” Tara asked, meaning, to fill up such a huge house.
“An older sister. She died when I was five.”
“Oh!” Tara said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t…”
Elizabeth said it was okay, and no one knew what to say after that. From the other end of the porch came the sound of a match being struck. Rachel, out for a smoke, silhouetted against a purpling sky.
“I feel like a slob,” Tara said after a while. “We didn’t know everyone would be so dressed up.”
“It’s for me,” Elizabeth said, badly faking a southern accent. She spun ballerina-style in front of us, coming to a stop with one hand on her hip and the other, holding her drink, raised high. “It’s because I am a debutante. Ready to come out into the world. And so, world, here I am.” She spun again, stopping with her arms flung wide, then curtsied, spilling some of her drink as she did so. We all laughed. It was so unlike her. At the pool she mostly sat by herself and read a book, and maybe swam a few laps when she got hot.
“Are we early?” Andy said, meaning, where’s everyone else?
“No,” Elizabeth said, a forced lightness in her voice, but the word gathered weight as it hung there in the humid air of the porch. There would be no one else. The three of us, who worked at the pool where she spent her days, who barely knew her, were her best friends in the world.
Her father appeared in the doorway. “Anybody hungry?” he said.
Tara took Andy’s hand. Elizabeth came up beside me and hooked her arm around mine. We followed her father inside.
Steamed crabs lay in piles on a long table covered in butcher paper. Plastic tubs held ice and expensive beer. Richard Merrick made a show of demonstrating how to eat a crab.
“Good lord, Richard, stop,” his wife said. “It’s Baltimore. The children know what to do with a crab.”
They asked us about schools. Tara and I had just graduated from high school. “From Cathedral,” she told them. I said from public school, then felt like an idiot for saying it that way. Andy said he would be a sophomore at Goucher. The Merricks told us about their sons at Princeton, one who played lacrosse and the other who rowed crew. The men offered advice on majors, wiped their hands with paper towels, and gave business cards to Andy and me. Tara took Andy’s from him and pretended to study it, covering it in crab spice and eliciting a smirk from Rachel. Tara had been accepted to M.I.T. for the fall.
“What do you think about the meteor?” Cassandra said, changing the subject.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Stephen said.
“Meteor?” Andy said.
“It’s been all over the news. They say it will come the closest to Earth of any in a thousand years. And if their calculations are off by just a few degrees…” Cassandra raised her eyebrows, implying apocalypse.
“Maybe it’ll dig my foundations for me,” Stephen said, and he and Richard laughed.
“I think we should prepare for it.”
“How, exactly, Cassandra?”
“By saying what needs to be said, though for the sake of our guests, Stephen, I shall refrain from that this evening. By doing things you would regret not doing.”
“Like trying to be a lesbian?” Stephen said. There was silence, then the sound of Rachel’s chair pushing back. She got up and left the room.
“Let’s see,” Angela said, quietly, but loud enough, “witch. Rhymes with…?”
Elizabeth took a wooden mallet and smashed a crab claw on the table, sending pieces of shell flying. She got up and left. The three of us sat there for a few seconds, not sure what to do, then excused ourselves and followed. We found her outside on the stone steps of the porch. She wiped tears off her cheek with the back of her hand as we approached. At the far end of the porch I could see the red tip of a cigarette where Rachel stood smoking. Lightning flickered in the distance, trailed by the low rumble of thunder.
“It’s all my fault,” Elizabeth said.
“Elizabeth…” Tara said.
“We used to have a playhouse, back in the woods behind the house. We could spend whole days there.”
“We…?” I said.
“Me and Katie, my sister. One day we’re in the playhouse and Katie says she’s going to take a nap. We did this all the time—sometimes pretending to take naps, and sometimes actually falling asleep. There was a small bed we mostly used for our dolls, but if you cleared them off and curled up, you could fit on it. Anyway, she falls asleep. I stay there for a while, and then go back to the house because I have to go to the bathroom. When I come back, the playhouse is on fire. It’s a big fire, all around the base, with flames taller than I am. I yell for Katie but she doesn’t answer. I want to go in and get her, but when I get close the fire’s too big. So I run back to the house to get my father. My mother is out somewhere. It takes forever. I’m going through the house calling for him and screaming and crying the whole time. Finally he comes out of an upstairs room we never use. By the time we get back to the playhouse it’s engulfed. He hooks up a long hose from the house and starts spraying. Eventually a fire engine comes. But it was all too late.”
“Jesus,” Andy said.
Tara moved next to Elizabeth on the step and put an arm around her shoulders. “Elizabeth. You were five years old. It’s not your fault.”
“For my birthday that year my mother gave me this crystal or prism thing that would catch the sun’s rays and turn them into rainbows. I hung it on a tree branch outside the playhouse. It made all these beautiful colors. It was a sunny day. They think what happened is that the sun’s rays got magnified when they went through the prism and set some straw on fire near the base of the playhouse. Katie and I put it there. We made a little stable for our toy horses. Anyway…”
“It’s not your fault.”
“When the fire engine came there was this woman standing around I didn’t recognize. I didn’t know who she was or what she was doing there. It was years before I understood that she had been in that room with my father.” Elizabeth stared out at the driveway, as if living it all over again. “And now here we are,” she said.
At the far end of the porch Rachel’s cigarette carved a glowing arc as she flicked it into some shrubbery. She went into the house and came back out seconds later with her purse. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but I’ve had it with your horrible family,” she said. She passed us on the steps, went to the Audi, and drove off.
“I’ll bet she put a curse on them,” Andy said as we watched her drive away. This was Andy being Andy, trying to be funny, to lighten the mood.
“Rachel’s okay,” Elizabeth said, meaning, enough with the witch jokes.
The storm hit, and we watched it from the porch, cat-scratch lightning and cannon-fire thunder, the rain coming in diagonal sheets. When it passed the skies were clear, and we were far enough from the city that the stars managed to put on a modestly impressive show.
“We should go before the next one,” Andy said to Tara. We all walked over to Andy’s motorcycle. He ran a hand across the seat to wipe off of some of the water.
“I can get a towel,” Elizabeth said.
“We’re good,” Andy said, meaning he didn’t want her to do anything that involved going back into that house.
“I’m glad you came,” Elizabeth said. She hugged Tara and then Andy. She didn’t try to apologize for anything. She and I stood there and watched Andy’s taillight disappear down the hillside.
“Come with me,” Elizabeth said. She took my hand and led me around the side of the house. We passed a woodpile covered with a tarp, which she grabbed and headed off along a path into the woods. We came to a small clearing, a meadow maybe twenty yards across. I wondered if this was where the playhouse had been, but I didn’t ask. I could imagine Elizabeth and her sister coming here when they were little, doing whatever little girls did. She spread out the tarp, dry side up in the wet grass, and we lay there on our backs, holding hands and looking up at the sky.
“We have to lie here until we see a shooting star,” she said. Through the tarp the ground felt cool against our backs.
“There!” I said. It hadn’t taken long. I squeezed her hand and she squeezed mine in return, and we stayed there, lying on our backs, looking up at the sky.
It was late when I said I should go. We walked to my Jeep, which was the only car left in the driveway. The house was silent. We hugged, and then I kissed her. I thought about what her mother had said, about saying things that needed to be said, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of what I needed to say.
“See you at the pool,” she said, and I said, “Sure,” and I wondered if everything would just go back the way it had been.
Andy and Tara didn’t show up for work the next day. I was a little pissed, because that meant I would have to do everything—the chemicals, the trash, and guard the pool the whole day, and the forecast was for hot and steamy.
Elizabeth came in the afternoon, and walked over to where I sat in the guard chair. She had big sunglasses on, but I could tell she’d been crying. “What?” I said.
Andy’s motorcycle had slid on a wet patch going down the hill from the house, throwing him and Tara off the roadway and into some large piece of machinery, and that was where they found their bodies in the morning.
About the Author:
Richard Bader makes his living helping nonprofit organizations tell their stories. At other times he likes to make up stories of his own. His fiction has been published by the Piltdown Review, the Burningword Literary Journal, Rkvry Quarterly, and National Public Radio, among others. He lives and writes in Towson, Maryland.