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Editor's Note: This piece previously appeared in Trouvaille Review.
Our daughter Jasmine grew troublesome that year. She complained about school, talked about boys, and cut her hair into a jagged wedge. My wife Hella said it was a phase, that it would pass, but Jasmine threw a fit when we asked her to pack for the family’s annual trip to coastal Maine.
“You’re coming, and that is that,” Hella said. Jasmine looked at me in protest, but I said nothing, and she must have thought me a monster. My little girl of fourteen no longer a little girl. Outside, a loud Trans Am circled the block.
We packed the car and set out. The Trans Am followed until the highway, and then disappeared past the onramp.
“What are you looking forward to the most?” I asked. Jasmine pretended like she didn’t hear me, but I knew she did. My mother was deaf and it’s a different type of silence. I asked again, and my wife turned and asked louder.
“Going home,” Jasmine said, and old wounds re-opened.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said. My hand on the steering wheel clenched so hard that the leather slicked in my palm. Hella spun around and the bickering began. The world used to be filled with word games and sing-a-longs and I thought this, this is a life worthy of passing to my daughter. Now, defiant opposition became a game and none of us knew how to win.
An hour into the drive and their steam let out. I turned on the radio to fill the quiet and tapped my foot to a classic rock song. It reminded me of my sister Elaine and the time she sat on the edge of our father’s sailboat buoyed to the dock at the inlet and dipped her toes into the water.
“It’s cold,” she said, and then hid her giggle behind a flurry of seven-year-old fingers. I told her I might push her overboard, as big brothers do, and she begged me not to until she cried, and I felt bad, and I never stopped feeling bad even though she told me it was ok, that she knew I wasn’t really going to push her in. Still, I bought her a dollar’s worth of penny candy the next day at the general store with my paper route money. She shared with me the strawberry chews because she knew I liked them.
The man who ran the store, Howard, loved it when we came in because he said he never had kids, or couldn’t, I can’t always remember the reason, but I do remember how much he enjoyed the way Elaine counted each piece out for him on the countertop.
“Such a smart girl,” he said when Elaine reached one-hundred. Elaine clapped her hands at the praise.
The general store got sold after Howard moved away years later. The new owners tried to make it a video rental, but that eventually went under too. Now it sells tacky memorabilia to commemorate coastal Maine and last I checked they were on the edge of bankruptcy. Sometimes I wondered if Jasmine knew the place was dying.
Twenty-minutes away from our turnoff, I silenced the radio and proposed a stop at Blankies, this burger and fry shack, a sort of off-the-beaten-path pillar. It had been around since my parents were kids and never changed its menu. Hella said she’d love to. Jasmine said she hated burgers and fries and asked to stay in the car. I told her it was important to me that we all go together, as a family, and Jasmine said she hated this family. I pulled over because it hurt to breathe, and cars screamed past us on the highway. Hella said some things and Jasmine started crying.
“Don’t cry,” I pleaded. Jasmine said I always do this, that I always force things on her without ever asking what she wants. My wife said it wasn’t like that, and she used the word “sweetie”, and Jasmine kicked the back of my seat. I looked into the rearview mirror and signed I hear you, even when you don’t speak. She signed why are we still signing? Grandma’s dead. I asked Hella to drive us the rest of the way in. Instead, she drove us to Blankies and by the time we got there, Jasmine apologized and gave me a hug. I kissed the top of her head and forgave her. We ordered three cheeseburgers, three fries, and onion rings to split. The owner, an old family friend named Bruce, was happy to see us and gave us the order on the house. Growing up, he always gave Elaine a free scoop of ice cream, too. I think he had a thing for my mother.
We ate on a wooden picnic table as the sun dipped golden into the low sky the same way it did when Elaine and I were kids. Sometimes I told her I’d toss the her cone into the dirt so she couldn’t eat it. She would look at me in horror wondering what might possess me to say such a thing. And then one summer I did. I knocked over her cone so she couldn’t eat it. I don’t know why, but I did, and Elaine never looked at me the same.
My wife rubbed my back.
“You ok?” she asked. I nodded yes, but it hurt to swallow.
Bruce’s grandson worked the window. He kept making eyes at Jasmine, who made eyes back and with an onion ring chomped between her teeth, she seemed happy to be there. Before we left, she wrote her number on a napkin and stuffed it in the window’s tip jar.
Our cottage is set between tall pines on an inlet that leads to the ocean. It’s a quiet, lonely place. Large windows overlook our weathered dock. The downstairs is all wide open. Everything is wood, except for the couch cushions and brick fireplace. Upstairs, the bedrooms are arranged by color from blue to green to pink to yellow. The knotty pine walls absorb the light, and everything feels tucked away from the rest of the world.
After pulling into the gravel lot and unloading, my wife poured a glass of white wine and sat by the large windows with her bare feet kicked onto the coffee table. Jasmine claimed the blue room and unpacked, so I went to check-in.
“It’s just…sometimes I feel like you keep secrets,” she said. “And then you get mad at me when I do.”
“This used to be grandma’s room,” I said, and ran my fingers along the beadboard paneling. “You remind me of her sometimes.”
Jasmine sat on the bed and folded a tee-shirt in her lap. She placed it next to her hip and signed what would Grandma do if boys spread rumors? Gross rumors? And other boys believed it?
She’d smile and say ‘I can’t hear you,’ I signed. Jasmine slapped her palm over her mouth and hid a giggle.
“If there’s something you need to tell me…” I said out loud, and Jasmine quickly unfolded and refolded the tee-shirt. She shook her head no. I didn’t believe her. Our family’s legacy is swollen with secrets.
Car tires crunched into the gravel lot and when I stood to look, a pickup truck reversed out. I couldn’t tell if they followed us, or were a lost tourist looking for the highway.
My father had the gravel lot put in the year before I left for college. He said the vibrations of all those shifting rocks would alert us, even our mother, but I was angry then and couldn’t wait to leave. He was right though, and for years we always knew when someone approached.
Downstairs, my wife had a fire going. She put a vinyl record onto the player and danced with ghosts as the needle scratched and jumped.
“Come here,” she said, and pulled me onto the braided rug. She smelled like pinot and sunscreen and it made me feel young again. We danced a clumsy waltz to the janky sound, the singer’s throaty gruff weaving poetry from a heavy drinker’s sensitive soul.
During family trips, our parents let Elaine and me stay up past our bedtime. We listened to records and danced by the fire. My mother sat on the speaker and clapped as we tumbled and spun. For Christmas, our parents bought us each a used record and when summer came, we played them at the cottage. One year, Elaine received a record of acoustic songs, and I liked it better than mine, so I hid it from everyone and said maybe it’d been stolen. My father went out and bought Elaine another album, but she said it wasn’t the same.
When I first brought Hella here all those years ago, we stayed up late drinking wine. I told her things I’d never told anyone, things about hiding records, and walking barefoot across the cool dirt and broken pines. She put on an album and swayed to the music, and, for some reason, the guilt of my childhood lifted.
Now, her head tucked against my chest, flickering heat tickling our ankles, I told her I didn’t want Jasmine hanging around with Bruce’s grandkid.
“She’s going to find out sooner or later,” Hella said.
“She’s my little girl” I said, and Hella suddenly got tired. She said wanted to be alone for a bit, so I walked onto our porch as the pickup truck doubled back. A guy with swooped bangs and close-cropped beard popped out with a woman in a large hat and high-waisted shorts.
“Greetings,” the guy called over. “My name is Troy, and this is my wife Cassandra. Are you Elliot Dreyfus?”
“Last name’s Piper,” I said, and pointed to the road for them to leave. The woman opened a notebook and flipped to a later page.
“Your sister was Elaine,” she said. “And you changed your name two years after she died.”
“We just want to talk. We have a podcast, you see, about cold cases,” Troy said. “It’s the thirty-year anniversary.”
My chest went tight and I couldn’t breathe. They walked across the gravel driveway and I couldn’t muster the strength to tell them to leave, to tell them I hadn’t healed, that I would never heal, that for an entire summer I didn’t speak because of what happened.
“No thank you,” I finally said.
“Mind if we take some pictures of the property?” Cassandra asked, and something in me came loose. I bent over and snatched a handful of gravel, then reared back. The husband and wife held up their hands and backed to the pickup. Only when they were out of sight did I drop the gravel, and in my mother’s old room, Jasmine’s silhouette milled across the window.
I went inside and splashed water on my face. I held my breath for as long as I could bare and then gasped to refill my lungs. Hella came downstairs and asked if I wanted to talk about what just happened, about how she can’t keep pretending the outside world isn’t curious. I said no and went to bed, but only pretended to be asleep.
The next morning, Jasmine spent breakfast on her phone typing and giggling. Outside, the blue sky held no clouds and the moon shone pale above the trees. Hella sat on the end of the old dock and dangled her feet into the cool water. It looked ready to collapse. The wood splintered and creaked, but it still maintained form. Birds chirped and somewhere far away was the rumble of cars chasing the highway.
I sat next to her and let my toes tickle the surface. The entire dock shifted. We didn’t speak. The water sparkled with tiny ripples of currents and a small stick drifted by. I started crying.
“Today is the anniversary,” I said, and Hella hugged me. “My mother came downstairs to police and firefighters and EMT’s and wanted to know what happened. I was in the kitchen shivering, so I told tried to sign that Elaine had been found on the grass. Someone had drowned her. My hands shook so hard that my mother couldn’t follow, so I tried to write it, and before I touched pen to paper, my mother knew.”
The porch door slammed shut and Jasmine sprinted across the gravel to an idling car in the road. She yelled out about how she’d be back later, and the car drove off.
“I’ll call her,” Hella said.
“It’s not her fault,” I said, lowering Hella’s phone from her ear. “She doesn’t know.”
“She needs to,” Hella said. “And please talk to someone. A professional. I love you, but this is heavy. It does things to a person. To you. Sooner or later it’s going to boil over.”
She put the phone to her ear and walked inside bickering into the receiver with Jasmine.
The police asked me if anyone might want to hurt my sister, if anyone acted unusual toward her. I talked about Howard at the general store who could never have kids, and Bruce from Blankies that gave her free ice cream. My dad even went to Bruce one day, but they had it out and made amends and that was that. It didn’t surprise me when no arrests were made, but people like Howard became subject to vandals and gossip. I watched it happen and said nothing. Nothing would bring Elaine back.
My father never recovered from that summer. He packed up his sunfish and off sold most of his tools. He drank himself into comas until one day, he didn’t wake up.
My mother, bless her soul, held on. Bruce started to come by after Dad died, but then that stopped too. When Jasmine was born, she found renewed strength to push forward. They shared a special bond and at her funeral, Jasmine signed the words to a Robert Frost poem my mother had taught her.
Sitting on that unstable dock, I dipped my toes into the cool water and then stood up to walk back to the house. I tread carefully as not collapse whatever was left of the stability. The sun was already hot in the sky, but the ground was cool and the pine needles beneath my feet poked between my toes along the budding grass.
A Trans Am kicked up dust on the dirt road and drove past our house. I watched them go until the car turned a corner and vanished behind some trees. Hella washed dishes in the kitchen.
“She’s at Blankies helping that boy clean. Bruce offered her a summer job. Might be good for her,” she said.
I sat down at the wooden table and took a sip of water from a glass leftover from breakfast.
“So she’s gone, too,” I said. Hella turned off the water and stared outside. I could feel her frustration with me, not because of my past, but because I compared our living daughter to my dead sister. The wind blew and the upstairs screens shrieked. I collected my keys and said I would talk to her at Blankies.
“She’s not a little girl anymore,” Hella said, palming my cheek, “but she’s still a little girl.”
The car’s interior felt like the inside of a mouth. The gears stuck a bit and I almost couldn’t get it out of reverse, but I did. Windows down until the AC kicked in, I drove the winding streets until I came upon the place. She sat outside with that boy on the same wooden bench we ate at the night before. They laughed with each other. Inside, I could see Bruce moving scraping and prepping the grill.
“Jasmine,” I said, getting out of the car. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”
She looked at me like a stranger and their laughter stopped.
“Is it true?” she asked. “Did you have a sister that died?”
“Yes,” I said. “She drowned.”
“Billy said you told police that his grandfather did it,” Jasmine said. Billy, Bruce’s grandkid, ducked his head between his shoulders.
“I was a boy,” I said. “My sister had just died. I said things.”
The Trans Am drove by, and then the pickup.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. She asked it like she didn’t want an answer, like she had already made up her mind to never trust me ever again. Bruce poked his head out the window and gave a friendly wave. It was far too early for them to open even though passing cars slowed down to see what time they would. Jasmine just stared at me standing next to my car in the lot.
I said nothing and drove home. The pickup was parked in the gravel lot. Hella led Troy and Cassandra through the yard pointing at the trees, the inlet, the dock.
“Please,” I said, stepping out of the car. “You need to leave now. You’re not welcome here.”
I stumbled toward them and gained momentum. My shoes kicked off and I had Troy by the collar of his shirt inside of a few steps.
“Did you do it?!” he gasped and shoved at my face. “Did you push her in that day?”
The next thing I knew, we had toppled over grunting and growling like feral dogs over scraps of meat. Hella shouted for us to stop. Cassandra filmed with a small camera. Troy wrestled free and they went back to their pickup. They sped away.
Hella stood at the edge of the grass looking more upset than I’d ever seen her.
“They gave me a thousand dollars to take pictures,” she said. “But they told me things. They aren’t true, right? You didn’t push your sister in and then blame innocent people, right?”
The sun beat down on my face and I had to squint to see her. I was silent for a lot longer than I should have been, and that silence became an answer.
“I was a boy,” I finally said. Hella said she was leaving, that my secrets drowned her too, and she went inside to pack her things. I stood in the yard beneath the pines, my soles digging into the cool ground and listened to the water drift through the inlet. The old dock creaked, and then collapsed as the old wood drifted out to sea.