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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-seven HOME FOR THE SUMMER

by
VALERIE ALEXANDER
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O

n my fourth day home from college, I came downstairs with my pool bag and stood on the marble foyer tiles listening to the sounds of the house. The faint television noise from the den said my little sister Nola was watching another Animal Planet show on dolphins; the overriding quiet in the other rooms said my mother had gone to the spa again.



The kitchen was sunny, clean and empty. I cut myself a piece of banana bread and took it with a cold can of Diet Coke into the den. The windows were shuttered, and in the dimness, Nola was a petite pale ghost staring forward from the leather loveseat.



"Hey," I said.



Her eyes lifted from the enormous flatscreen. “Hey. Mom’s at the spa again.”



“I figured.” I leaned against the doorway, pulling my shorts down over my bikini bottoms. “Nola, how often has she been going there since Dad…?”



“She goes every day, about. So what, Avery?”



My sister's reedy, slightly petulant tone reminded me that people grieved in unfathomable ways. Let Mom have her spa days, massages and manicures, her tone said. Which seemed a mature perspective from a sixteen-year-old, but then my sister needed to justify her ceaseless vigil before the ocean documentaries of cable television. She’d been in the den every day since I got home. I wondered how badly her grades had tanked the final weeks of school. Nola was an honors student, and her teachers knew she wanted to be a marine biologist; maybe they had given her some kind of bereavement break.



"So nothing." I sat on the arm of the loveseat and ate the banana bread. We watched a sleek bottlenose dolphin undulate through greenish waters. "You want to come down to the club with me? Riley and Emma are usually there."



"Maybe later."



That was what Nola said every day. I left my sister to the subaqueous shadows and flickerings of the den and went out into the bright June morning.



Cypress Lane was humid and still. When I came home for the funeral five weeks ago, there had been news vans parked down the road, lined up parallel to the rustic fences and verdant lawns. Reporters had tried to get neighborhood quotes on what kind of man my father had been – looking for a soundbite that would add another dimension to his bland corporate headshot, inject some flavor into his new role as a fifty-one-year-old businessman blown up by terrorists in a plane crash. But today there was only the Vermuellens’ lawn crew mowing figure eights around their weeping willow trees. Two houses beyond that, Mr. McCann’s new wife waved from the driveway as she unloaded groceries from her BMW.



Walking the three blocks to the country club, I repeated what I’d said to myself every day: that I couldn’t feel guilty about returning to college and finishing my semester after the funeral; that the media coverage had clearly driven my mother and sister into isolation over the last five weeks; that while we all grieved in different ways, it would be different now that I was home. We’d make shrimp tacos and eat them on the patio, watch the late-night movies my mother liked, paint Nola’s room a different color. We'd host a lunch meeting for my mother’s charity league. We'd open the pool and swim by starlight on the cool Connecticut summer nights just like we used to.



He had never been around much anyhow.



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Out on the country club golf course, men in pastel polo shirts dotted the green like bald stuffed peacocks. The parking lot was almost full as I slid between the cars and showed my card to the attendant. The plastic green lounge chairs were already taken; I spread my towel out on the cement deck, pulled off my shorts and shirt, and lay down on my stomach.



A woman in a black maillot and straw hat murmured something to the woman next to her, who looked at me with intrigue. But I was getting used to that. I closed my eyes, letting the smell of chlorine and the shouts of the pool obliterate them as a black and languorous heat spread over my mind.



This was my first summer coming here alone to swim and tan. We had a pool at home, though my mother hadn't opened it yet, just like she hadn't unwrapped the bedroom air conditioners my father had covered in plastic for the winter or tended the daffodils we got her for Easter. My mother said the country club was gauche, and that attending the cotillions or entering the golf tournaments meant you were trying. The real clout was in having a membership you never used because you were too busy traveling and going to real fundraisers and parties. The exception was bringing your small children here for the summer recreation programs, like when I used to bring the Vermuellen kids here for their swim lessons.



“Avery?” A fortyish blonde leaned over me, her tanned face sweating makeup.



“Hi, Mrs. Delacroix.”



"It's nice to see you out and about. Your mom said you went back to school."



"I did. It was only a month till finals, so..." I still didn't know if that was an insensitive thing to have done. It had seemed wasteful to withdraw for the entire semester.



"That must been rough. Being away from your family."



A thin, freckled girl was watching me from the snack bar: Brynne Lockwood, who'd been in my AP Chemistry class in high school. Neither of us waved. "My father wouldn't have wanted me to drop out."



"You're so brave." Mrs. Delacroix made a wet clucking noise before changing her tone, her voice going confidential and a little snide. "Your mom, I don't know if she's got your strength, Avery. I've seen her at the store. She looks just so damaged by all of this."



"She's doing okay."



"I heard she's been at the spa almost every day these last two weeks."



Mrs. Delacroix had always been interested in my mother. A lot of women were because my mom was ethereal and pretty and kind of off, in Mrs. Vermuellen's words, and she didn't have many close friends. Everybody knew her. But she went to the spa by herself, went out to lunch by herself, never joined the yoga classes and brunch groups and equestrian clubs other women did, never invited anyone to go shopping. Mrs. Delacroix had been fixated on my mother for years. She was the one to say at my father’s fiftieth birthday party, right in front of Nola and me, "Why do so many beautiful women have such plain daughters?" Our mother was wild with rage when someone told her, and Mrs. Delacroix had been excommunicated from a book club.



Our mother had always had a temper: volcanic, reactive. Your mom can go a little crazy, my father would say with an apologetic laugh, she’s very emotional, though it didn’t stop him from leaving us at home with her all the time while he traveled.



Not that our mother was ever crazy with us. Not in a cruel way. There were sudden shopping trips in New York, the birthday where we spontaneously flew to Scotland to see where her favorite movie was filmed, the time she created a peacock run in the backyard. Just ways to cope with her husband being gone on business all the time.



Riley Zimmerman, who went to school with my sister, appeared next to Mrs. Delacroix with her arms folded awkwardly over her green bikini top. "Hi, Avery."

Mrs. Delacroix stage-whispered, "I'll let you girls talk" and went back to her chair.



"I told Nola to come down today," I said. “I’m trying to get her out of the house.”



"She won't come out," Riley said. "I stopped by the other night, and all she wanted to do was watch TV. She wouldn't even go to the big graduation party on the Bluffs last weekend."



Suddenly, I felt convinced it was my mother keeping my sister at home, warping her grief into some kind of agoraphobia. "I'm home now," I said. "She'll come out with me, whether she wants to or not."



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But Nola was already gone when I got home. Banana bread crumbs on the granite countertop were the only sign of life, a prescription bottle of sleeping pills sitting next to a cookbook from a famous TV chef. I swept the crumbs into the sink and put away the olive oil I'd used to make pasta last night. The refrigerator was a humming, empty brightness. My mother had never been much of a cook, though she’d made me eggs and toast my first night home from school. They'd tasted weird, and I vomited them up almost immediately.



But that would all change now. Tonight I would go to the supermarket and fill the refrigerator with food and tomorrow we would have a family dinner.

The soft growl of my mother’s Audi came through the window screen. Her perfume entered the house first; a new citrus scent she'd been slathering on since I’d been home, and then she entered with that tentative, fragile look that made people want to take care of her.



“Hi, Mom,” I said. “Good spa day?”



“The best. Had a wonderful mud treatment. You should come with me tomorrow, Avery.”



She looked beautiful and false. At the funeral, her eyes had looked wild and broken, but now her face was like a soft painted mask, her hair an elaborate honey-colored mane. She looked like a doll recreated daily by aestheticians and hairstylists and manicurists. But if I looked closely, I could see a dullness in her eyes. A sagging around her jaw and mouth.



Her gaze went to the refrigerator. “I need to cook you a real welcome home dinner. I keep forgetting. What do you want – eggplant parmigiana? Tilapia on the grill? We could do French toast, you girls used to love having breakfast at night – remember when we would do that?”



“It's okay. Let me cook, Mom.”



“Have you seen your sister around?”



“She was in the den earlier.”



My mother looked queerly at me. “How does she seem to you?”



“Depressed, to be honest. All she does is watch those nature documentaries. Her friends told me she barely goes out.”



“I hear her sometimes in there.” My mother suddenly looked like she was going to cry.



"We all need to get out more," I said. "I know everybody here keeps - talking about Dad. But we could go out of town. Maybe go up to Ogunquit or take a weekend trip."



"Maybe," my mother said. "Not right now, though."



The supermarket was lit up like a brilliant fluorescent heaven that night, bottles of shampoo and tomato sauce and mineral water glowing like promises of health and normalcy on the shelves. I filled my cart with artichokes, bananas, frozen chicken, ice cream, a bag of the miniature candy bars Nola liked to refrigerate before eating. Riley and some of her classmates were in line ahead of me, buying beer with an ID that went unquestioned by the cashier.



Driving home, I passed crowds spilling out of a new frozen yogurt place, a line for miniature golf, a band roaring from Finnegan’s bar. Everyone was home from college for the summer, judging by the crowd on the patio. I wondered which of my high school friends would call me and invite me out and if they would bring up my father or pretend the plane crash never happened. So far I hadn’t gotten a single text.



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The signs of a ghost are well-known. Lightbulbs burn out early, batteries go dead. Clocks stop, cold spots hover in summer rooms. You can feel someone standing behind you, late at night, as you listen to your sleeping neighborhood through the window screen.



But there was no executive ghost, still dressed in his loafers and Brooks Brothers, walking our house. Looking, say, at the bookcase of spy thrillers we bought him for his birthday, to read at our cottage in Ogunquit, though we never knew if that was truly what he wanted. We never knew what our father liked.



Your father is brilliant, our mother always said to us, on those nights when he was in Tokyo or Brussels and we’d have a girls’ night, thrilling to the makeup she’d brush onto our faces at her vanity. That is the most attractive quality a man can have. I fell in love with his intelligence.



What stayed unexplained was why our so-smart father fell in love with her; why of all the pretty women in the world, his heart lifted for her, her particular combination of eyelashes and voluptuous hair and slinky dresses. How he felt when he decided to propose, if he ever feared to lose her to another man. Probably his love was silent, like when we were little, and he'd lift us onto his knee on the beach, and we'd watch the tide going out. Come on, let's find a sand dollar, he'd say finally, leading us by the hand across the wet ridged sand; but we never did.



The house was quiet as I unpacked the groceries. My mother had gone to bed. Nola had gone out, probably to that party that her friends were buying beer for. I read the label on the bottle of sleeping pills. My mother never took these before; a doctor must have written her a prescription after the funeral. Tomorrow I would look in her bathroom and see what other medications she was taking.



At midnight I shut off the lights and went out to the pool. It was still blanketed under a heavy polyethylene cover, even though our neighbors had opened their pools up weeks ago. I listened to the crickets and waited for a sign. But there was no ghost to visit the navy and burgundy home office or gaze at the wedding photo on the mantel; just an unhaunted house on a summer night.



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The next morning my mother was at the spa again. I pushed open the door to my father's office and walked past the striped wallpaper, the mahogany desk, Montblanc pens lined up next to a blotter where his laptop used to sit.



“What are you looking at?”



Nola leaned against the doorway, chewing her fingernail. She was back in the tiny cut-offs and pink t-shirt she’d been wearing yesterday.



“Just his stuff.” I pointed at the framed photos of him with various dignitaries. “It’s weird that we’ll never know much about that part of Dad's life.”



“Do you think he was scared?”



I paused. “I think it happened too fast for him to be scared. And you know Dad. He was so stoic. He would have been very dignified.”



“The plane didn't just explode. It broke into several pieces. They said a lot of the passengers were still conscious probably as it dropped.”



Shit. I'd hoped she was too deep in her TV-ocean coma to read all the articles online.



“It still would have been over in seconds. The point is, he's in a better place now.”



“We don't know where he is," Nola said. “Not everyone who's dead goes to the same place.”



We were definitely going out tonight. We were going to put on dresses and go somewhere elegant for dinner and make vacation plans for the summer.



“Come on.” I led her out of the office and shut the door behind us. “Put on your bikini and come down to the club with me.”



“I don’t want to see everyone.”



“You can’t spend the whole summer inside, Nola.”



She leaned against the wall and lifted her right foot, examining her toenails. Her long brown hair hung forward, covering her face.



“Fine, stay home from the club. But tonight we’re going out to dinner.”



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Sleeping in that narcotic blackness, the heat of the cement baking through the towel. The tunnel of Morpheus taking me away from the ugly glare of a summer that was insistently demanding I step up and notice something, fix something. Then a splash of pool water sprinkled my back and set off an alarm in my head: I hadn’t seen my mother and my sister in the same room together since I’d been home. They weren’t speaking to each other. Something was wrong.



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The dull tinge of evening sunbeams filled the kitchen as I walked in. My sister was out, and so was my mother thought she’d left recently; a load of laundry tumbled through the dryer. I looked at the unopened bag of candy bars in the refrigerator and felt angry and frightened and close to crying.



Shadows filled the house until it was seven o’clock, then eight o’clock, and no one came home for dinner. It was after nine when I went in the backyard and began lifting the weights off of the turquoise polyethylene pool cover.



Nola came outside. “Mom won’t like it.”



“Oh, so now you come home. I told you we were eating out tonight.”



“Leave the pool alone,” Nola said. “Mom doesn’t want it opened.”



“Mom can’t handle normal life tasks this summer. Help me get the weights off, and we'll have the pool guy come out and treat the water tomorrow.” I pointed up at the air conditioners. “Then we're going to unwrap those. It’s getting stuffy upstairs at night.”



“Avery, don't,” Nola said. “You can swim at the club.”



“Nola, I’m opening the fucking pool.”



She stood behind me in the same shorts and pink t-shirt instead of helping. I pulled off the remaining three weights, then grabbed the smooth edge of the cover and yanked it forward.



The water was discolored in the moonlight. The cover caught on a hump, and I tugged it past; an animal had died in the pool. I pulled the rest of the cover onto the deck and walked around the side for a closer look.



A rotten swamp stench flooded my nose. The misshapen form of what was maybe a baby deer floated before me. Then I saw it was a swollen human body, blackened with decay and clad in cut-offs and a transparent shirt that might once have been pale pink. Long brown hair fanned the head.



My sister’s bloated body floated in the starlight.



I turned and of course she was gone. I ran back into the house. “Nola! Nola!” My feet pounded through the living room, onto the kitchen tile, through the den. The TV silent with its remote placed on top.



“Nola!”



I ran out the front door and across the grass, looking for her petite form leaving the driveway. It was a visit and now it’s done. But Cypress Lane was empty under the streetlights. She was simply gone.



My mother’s Audi came down the road. We stared at each other through the windshield, and she pulled into the driveway.



Her eyes looked jaundiced as she got out, that heavy citrus scent wafting toward me. “You opened the pool. Didn’t you.”



We walked into the backyard, and she stared at Nola's corpse. “I knew you would ruin it.”



I felt numb. As if I could go inside and tomorrow I’d wake up to Nola in the den watching TV, that life could go forward in that same warped duality of my sister's drowned body in the pool and her ghost in the house. “It?”



“This dream. This impossible dream we had for a little while.”



She turned to me. Her yellowed eyes held mine with sorrow. “Jesus Christ, Mom,” I said. “What did you do?”



She hugged me tight. Her body was spongy against mine and cold. As the night crickets faded from my consciousness, I became aware of only one heartbeat: my own.



I let my dead mother hold me for another minute. “I don’t understand how anything of this happened. How you did this.”



“You know how I did it.”



The bottle of prescription sleeping pills in the kitchen. The eggs and toast I threw up the first night, drugged and prepared by dead hands. “I mean – this.” I poked her shoulder, but gently because I didn’t want my finger to penetrate her flesh. Which felt loose.



"I don’t really know why I came out of the pool that night, and she didn’t. I thought, at first, it was maybe a punishment. Because of what I did, because I didn't want us to live without him.” She stroked my hair. “But now I think it was love. I loved you enough to come back for you. So we could all go together.”



Nola’s friends hadn’t seen her out of the house in over a week; my mother had been at the spa every day for two weeks. So it had been about three weeks after the funeral. A very special dinner, just the two of them, my sister getting sleepier and sleepier.



“I’m glad you got to see her. She wouldn’t appear to me. I think she's angry that I – made the decision without asking her.” My mother began peeling off her dress. In the starlight, I could see the mottled discoloration of her flesh, the gassy protrusion of her stomach, her legs as dappled as decaying vegetables. “I could hear her around the house sometimes, but I knew she was just a - I knew her body was still in the water.”



“So we’ll get her back.” I looked at the lit windows. “Nola,” I called.



“She’s gone.” My mother walked into the shallow end. “I suspected she would disappear once you – found out. I think as long as you believed in her, it was easier for her to stay.” She waded naked into the water.



"What are you doing?"



"Look at me, Avery. People at the spa keep asking questions about my skin, my eyes – I can’t hide it anymore."



As the water lapped at her waist, a slight current in the pool pulled my sister’s body to her. Nola's waterlogged bottom bumped up against her as my mother splashed water over her face and smeared her heavy makeup. She turned toward me. “It’s not too late for you. The pills are under the microwave.”



“Mom, get out. I’ll cover the pool again.”



"No. It’s over. The water is working on me … I can feel it.”



She was disintegrating. Her upper arms sagged like baggy pillowcases, her face slipping down like a melting candle. Her eyes moved toward my face again, and her jaw moved in a garbled sound as if her tongue and mouth had turned to mush. The pool was a rotting soup of hair and flesh. She turned toward my sister's corpse and her arms opened as if to embrace Nola, but then she went underwater.



I watched the pool for a long time to see if she would emerge, come slithering up the steps in another form. But her body stayed sunken while my sister floated in the pool, seemingly at peace in the quiet night. I waited for a noise from the house, hoping that the rules of ghosthood could be trumped as my mother had trumped the laws of death for a few weeks. But the house was silent of all family noise, all television, as the pool was quiet of the sounds of suicide and murder.



If I listened closely, I could hear the faint music and voices in town, the band at Finnegan’s, the last of the night golfers closing down the country club. But now it seemed like someone else’s world, the world of the living, and I was no longer sure if I qualified for that status. The foul waters glittered in the starlight as I thought of my family reuniting in that dimension beyond the doorway of the pool. Tomorrow I was going to wake up in a different world, but I didn’t know yet which world it would be.



   
   

 

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Valerie Alexander is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Her stories have been published in LampLight, Dark Moon Digest, and other outlets, as well as anthologies from Cleis Press, Samhain Publishing, Running Press, and others. You can reach her at @Vaxder or ValerieAlexander.org.



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