Here she is, alone by the water with her only child. It’s the middle of the day, and the sun is very bright.
Her daughter is lying on the sand beside her. If she wants to, she can reach out and grab a small, smooth foot, skim her fingers across the slippery material of the pink-and-purple bathing suit with the cartoon pony on the front.
She could do that, and reassure herself that her little girl is O.K. She’s right here. She’s where she is supposed to be.
But what happens when she takes her hand away and closes her eyes? Her child disappears. It’s that easy. One minute her daughter is there, smiling on the beach on a beautiful summer day. And then she’s gone.
Sweat rolls down Ruth’s back, and Fern asks her, “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Nothing’s wrong, sweetie.” Ruth squints at the diamonds of sunlight spiking off the lake. “We’re just waiting for our friends.”
Far above them, at the top of a steep set of uneven wooden steps, the enormous A-frame cottage is locked, and Ruth doesn’t have a key.
When they arrived, more than an hour ago, she parked in the empty driveway and freed Fern from her car seat, and the two of them knocked on the door, but there was no answer.
It was hot, and Fern wanted to put on her bathing suit immediately. She started to take off her clothes in the front yard, but Ruth made her change in the car. She stood guard while Fern shed her top and bottom and wrestled into her suit, sharp elbows pinwheeling behind the bird-shit-streaked windows.
The cottage is surrounded by forest so dense it looks dark even in the daytime. The trees huddle together around the property, jagged branches pointing accusations at the expensive piece of land that somebody hacked out in the centre of them.
Now Ruth sits on the little beach by the dock, perspiring in her jeans and T-shirt, and tells her impatient daughter it’s not time for swimming yet.
They can swim when their friends get here.
Although she doesn’t know when that will be, because Stef isn’t answering her phone. She must be somewhere out of range.
Why isn’t she here though?
Ruth has had to pee for about half an hour now. Her bladder aches.
Maybe she got the address wrong. Maybe Stef and Sammy and the girls are waiting somewhere else, wondering what’s keeping them.
And then he appears.
A tall man with broad shoulders and black hair, gliding toward Ruth and Fern in nothing but a pair of sunglasses and palm-tree-patterned surf shorts, the sparkling waves making the paddleboard beneath him nearly invisible, so it looks almost like he’s walking on water. Almost.
He grins at them and calls out, “Ahoy!”
“Ahoy!” Fern calls back, even though she has no idea who the man is.
How many times has Ruth told her never to talk to strangers? Not enough, apparently.
He floats closer and grows larger, cutting through the lake until he reaches the shore. Then he hops off his board and walks right over to them.
“My name’s Marvin,” he says. “You look lost.”
Like they’d washed up on a deserted island with no hope of rescue. Which is actually sort of true. No, it’s not. They’re fine. They’re on vacation!
Ruth shields her eyes, peering at her tiny reflection in the man’s glasses. A halo of sun glows around his silhouette.
“I’m Fern,” says Fern.
Ruth shakes her head and waits for her daughter to ask him for some candy next.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Fern.”
Ruth stands up and steps in front of her child’s long, pale limbs—so much of her soft body exposed to the air. Sticks out her hand, which is shaking, but just a little.
“I’m Ruth. We’re visiting my friend Stef. But I’m not sure we’re in the right place.”
“You surely are.” His hand is warm when he grasps hers. “Stef’s in the lake.”
She tries to pull away but he holds on, and she imagines long strands of blond hair like seaweed, drifting.
“They went for a boat ride. I passed them on my way over here.” He releases her.
“Oh.” Her arm drops and dangles by her side. “Maybe she forgot we were coming.”
“No, she knows. She said to tell you to sit tight and they’ll be here soon. How long have you been waiting?”
Fern crosses her arms and frowns. “A million years!”
Ruth shushes her. “Not too long.”
“I told her she was being a bad host. If you were visiting my cottage, my wife would’ve served you twelve different types of pie already.”
“Pie is squishy inside,” says Fern. “Daddy likes it but I hate it.”
“Me too.” He winks at Fern over his glasses. “Where’s your daddy now?”
“He’ll be here soon,” Ruth says, too quickly.
“He’s at our new house!” Fern jumps up and down. “Auntie Stef is our neighbour now!”
“She’s my neighbour too,” says Marvin. “Look at how much we have in common.”
There’s a splash by the dock, and Ruth turns just in time to see the flash of silver and brown. A big fish, bigger than she’d expect to see so close to shore, leaping up to catch a dragonfly. She thinks she can even hear the jaws snap, but that must be her imagination.
“Your wife sounds like a nice person,” she says. “With the pie.”
“Yeah,” says Marvin. “She’s all right.”
“Mommy has to go pee!” Fern shouts.
“Shh, Fern.” Ruth’s face reddens. “No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do!” Her daughter jabs a tiny finger at her. “You told me you did!”
“I can keep an eye on your little one if you want to scamper into the woods,” Marvin tells Ruth. “I’d let you into the cottage if I could, but I don’t have a key. Stef and Sammy trust us with their children, apparently, but not their valuables.”
Ruth measures the pain in her bladder against the short distance to the trees and the time it would take to find a secluded spot, pull down her pants, relieve herself, pull them up again, and run back.
Marvin smiles at Fern again and hunkers down next to her, compacting his bulk into a boulder shape. “I like your towel.”
“Thank you.” Fern smiles back at him. “It’s my favourite.”
“There is no way,” Ruth thinks, and grits her teeth as she allows a few drops of urine to escape. She’s wearing a pad and it’s one of the more absorbent ones, so hopefully that will help. As long as she only goes a little bit.
Fern’s beach towel is emblazoned with lobsters wearing T-shirts. James gave it to Ruth a long time ago, after she first told him she was pregnant. It was a weird celebratory gesture, but he had that wonderful, crazed grin on his face when she unwrapped it.
It’s a dumb towel, but Fern loves it anyway.
Marvin scuttles a spidery hand closer to her daughter, and all of Ruth’s muscles tense. He taps one of the scarlet claws and jerks his hand back.
“Ouch!” he yelps, and Fern giggles.
Ruth thinks, “Lobsters only turn red after they’ve been boiled.”
Fern yells, “Look!”
She jumps up and races to the edge of the shore, as the roar of an outboard motor obliterates all other sounds.
Less than ten minutes later, after Stef and Sammy have docked their boat and piled out with the twins to greet Ruth and Fern, and Marvin told Stef to hurry up and let Ruth into the cottage already because she needed to use the facilities, and Sammy said he’d stay at the beach with the kids as long as Stef brought him down some beef jerky—“The spicy one! Not the regular one, because it tastes like a dead rat.” And all three girls collapsed together in a heap, helpless with laughter: “He said dead rat! He said dead rat!”—Ruth sits on the toilet, relieved at last, and looks down between her pale legs.
The bowl is bright with ribbons of blood. And here she’d thought she was nearly done. She should’ve packed tampons but she only brought the pads.
She peers around the room but there’s no medicine cabinet and the sink is a fancy pedestal one with no cupboard underneath. If she wants a tampon, she will have to ask. She hates asking Stef for anything.
Ruth wipes one last time and stands up.
At home, the toilet clogs regularly, and over the years she’s become an expert with the plunger. Wrestling with whatever came out of her, forcing it back down the pipes.
She holds her breath as she flushes, and is grateful when everything disappears.
The distant shrieks just barely reach her. Fern is always so excited to see Amelia and Isabelle. They’re her best friends, she says, even though the twins are seven and Fern is only four.
Ruth turns on the tap, and a loud knock at the bathroom door makes her flinch and fling a spray of cold water onto the round mirror, which has been designed to resemble a ship’s porthole. The water streams down over her startled reflection, and there’s another knock, louder this time.
“Hello?” she calls.
“It’s me,” says Stef. “Just making sure you didn’t fall in.”
Ruth turns off the faucet and dries her hands, then swipes the towel across the glass, but of course that just makes everything worse. She could hunt around for cleaning products but she doesn’t want to. Instead, she grabs a bottle of expensive-looking lotion and squeezes out a big glob. It’s pale yellow and smells like lemons, and she’s still rubbing it into her skin when she opens the door and smiles at her friend.
Stef smiles back and walks right in.
“Do you love this place or what?”
She hustles Ruth back over to the sink and shoves until both of their faces are framed inside the decorative porthole. It looks expensive, made of shiny brass and embellished with fake rivets and hinges.
Suddenly Stef’s eyes go wide with fear, and Ruth is confused because her friend isn’t scared of anything, but then Stef claws at the glass and yells, “Help us! We’re sinking!” and chuckles at her own joke.
“Ha ha.” Ruth takes a step backward. “I should get back to Fern.”
“Oh, she’s fine. Anyway, I have to give you the grand tour first.”
Stef scowls at the streaks on the mirror.
“Ugh, look at this. Sammy is such a slob. He always flosses his teeth right up close and then tries to smear off his disgusting plaque morsels with toilet paper. I’ll make him clean this later.”
She surveys the rest of the bathroom, and gives Ruth a knowing smirk. “Bitch always has the worst timing, doesn’t she?”
Ruth follows Stef’s gaze to the trash bin, where she thought she’d buried all the evidence. But there is the lilac wrapper with its crumpled white wing, resting on the very top of the pile.
She should’ve just bundled up everything in a wad of toilet paper and stuck it in her purse, because now Stef is going to say something like, “You better not go swimming with that thing stuck to your crotch or the muskies will start circling, ha ha.” She can almost hear the words in the air already. The two of them have known each other for so long.
But all her friend says is, “You want a beer?”
After Stef has walked Ruth through every room in the cottage, taking the time to point out the various features of each and explaining how the previous owners had been happy to give them most of the furniture and even left behind a bunch of toys for the twins—“They just wanted to get out of here, I guess. Lucky us!”—the two mothers start down the long staircase together, clutching their cold bottles.
Ruth grips the splintery railing with her free hand and follows her friend down to the beach, trying to make her feet move faster than they want to go.
“Whoa,” Stef says over her shoulder, “what’s the rush? You’re on Cottage Time now.”
“I just want to get back to Fern, that’s all.”
“Sammy’s down there, don’t worry about it. Sorry we were late, by the way. We lost track of time. But hey, you got to meet Marvin! Isn’t he great?”
Ruth feels herself nodding in automatic agreement. But then she says, “He offered to watch Fern while I peed in the bushes. Except I don’t know him, so.”
“I assume he told you I know him, though. Right?”
Ruth hates the smallness of her voice.
“Jesus, what’s he going to do? You could’ve left her with him for a minute.”
Stef stops walking and turns around, so Ruth has to stop walking too.
“Marvin’s a weirdo, but he’s harmless. He and his wife look after the twins sometimes. Do you think I’d let him babysit if I didn’t trust him?”
“No,” Ruth says quickly, “of course not.”
The two of them stand there, surrounded by trees. Ruth thinks, stupidly, “This really is a beautiful spot.”
“Exactly,” says Stef. “They’re good neighbours, which counts for a lot around here. Apparently, we have to rely on our neighbours in cottage country—we’ve joined a community.”
She performs a dramatic shiver of revulsion, then turns and keeps going.
The laughter falls out of Ruth, like it always does. “Laughing is good,” she thinks. “It makes everything easier.”
From somewhere down below, a few elated squeals drift up. More happy sounds.
“His wife, Lesley, is big into baking pies,” Stef goes on. “She’s got time for that shit because they don’t have kids. She made us a peach one after we moved in, and Marvin carried it over on his paddleboard.”
Ruth tries to see what the girls are doing, but the foliage is thick on both sides so there’s only green.
“How was it?”
“I have no idea. It sat on the counter for a few days and then I threw it out.”
Stef points at something grey as they round a bend.
“Watch yourself there.”
When she sees what Stef is talking about, Ruth skids on some loose gravel and sucks in a breath.
The wasps’ nest is hanging from a low branch, ugly and bulging and too close to the stairs.
“Fern’s never been stung before,” she murmurs.
“Yeah, neither have the twins.” Stef waves a dismissive hand as they pass by. “It’s fine. Just steer clear of them and they’ll steer clear of you.”
“O.K.” Ruth frowns as she focuses on her descent. “If you say so.” She’s almost sure she can hear buzzing. Any second now, an angry swarm will fill the air around them.
Then she’d have to run, but the wasps would be faster. The pain would be everywhere and then she’d trip and lose her balance, and for a long, slow-motion moment she’d be suspended with her arms outstretched, teetering above lake and trees and sky. And then she’d fall.
The girls’ squeals intensify as they get closer to the beach.
“I’m here, Fern!” Ruth calls, quickening her pace.
She’s nearly at the bottom now. Only a few more steps to go.
And then at last she has an unobstructed view, and there is her child. Hurtling across the beach with Amelia and Isabelle. Because Marvin is chasing them.
Ruth’s voice is sharp: “Stef, where’s Sammy?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
In her rush to reach her daughter, Ruth trips on the final stair and lands with a grunt. Her beer bottle goes flying and shatters on a rock.
Now the sand around her is full of broken glass.
“Mommy!” hollers Fern. “We’re playing Monster!”
Only a few metres away, the three girls swerve toward them.
“Stay there!” Ruth shouts. “Don’t move!”
Stef stops behind her. “I knew I should’ve given you a can. I was just going to slum it with a couple Bud Light Limes, but no, you made me get the fancy microbrews from the back of the fridge.”
“Is there a snake, Mommy?”
Fern is standing perfectly still between Amelia and Isabelle, who are taking turns poking her in the sides.
Closer to the water, Marvin is bent over, fiddling with his feet.
“No snakes,” he says. “Just a teeny accident.”
He straightens up and strides over in flippers, wielding a pink plastic rake and a yellow plastic bucket, both instruments tiny in his giant hands.
The little girls giggle uproariously as he shuffles past them.
“You’re awesome,” Stef tells him, with a sideways glance at Ruth.
He shrugs away the compliment and begins sifting through the sand with the rake, picking up the jagged amber shards and dropping them into the bucket, which is adorned with a cartoon frog in a coconut bra and hula skirt.
Ruth stays absolutely still as he crouches down next to her, lays his palms on the sand, and sweeps cautious circles all around her until he’s satisfied the danger is gone.
Marvin gives her a gallant bow and then offers a hand to help her up.
“And the other good news is, Sammy’s in the boathouse right now restocking the beer fridge.”
“Oh, shit,” says Stef. “I forgot his beef jerky.”
Ruth lets Marvin pull her to her feet.
“Looks like you saved the day.”
“Does that mean I can stay here with you guys?” His voice is pleading, over-the-top. “I don’t want to go home yet.”
“I don’t know,” says Stef. “What does Ruth say?”
“Mommy?” calls Fern. “Is it safe now?”
Ruth nods, and her daughter rockets over and snuggles against her legs. She rubs Fern’s back.
“Sure, why not.”
The grin Marvin gives her is so wide, it nearly splits his face in two.
“I knew you liked me.”
She sees the streak of red then, bright against her child’s skin, and gasps.
“Don’t worry, it’s only me. From when I helped you up.”
Marvin displays his bleeding hand, and winces as he picks out the tiniest piece of glass.