“Your doctor will be relieved to hear that.”
We drove in taut silence for a while before Gus rolled down his window, which gave me permission to roll mine down. The warm whip of the air against the open windows dissolved any discomfort from the silence we’d fallen into. We could’ve just been two strangers on the same beach or bus or ferry.
As we drove, the sun vanished inch by inch. Eventually, Gus fiddled with the radio, stopping to crank up an oldies station playing Paul Simon.
“I love this song,” he told me over the wind cycloning through the car.
“Really?” I said, surprised. “I figured you’d make me listen to Elliott Smith or Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’ the whole way.”
Gus rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “And I figured you’d bring a Mariah Carey playlist with you.”
“Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.”
His gruff laugh was mostly lost in the wind, but I heard enough of it to make my cheeks go warm.
It was two hours before we got off the highway and then another thirty minutes of ice-damaged back roads, lit only by the car’s brights and the stars overhead.
Finally, we pulled from the winding road through the woods into the gravel lot of a bar with a corrugated tin roof. Its glowing marquee read, THE BY-WATER. Aside from a few motorcycles and a junker of a Toyota pickup, the lot was empty, but the windows, illuminated by glowing BUDWEISER and MILLER signs, revealed a dense crowd inside.
“Be honest,” I said. “Did you bring me here to murder me?”
Gus turned off the car and rolled up the windows. “Please. We drove three hours. I’ve got a perfectly good murder spot back in North Bear Shores.”
“Are all your interviews at spooky dive bars in the forest?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Only the good ones.”
We climbed out of the car. Without the fifty mph wind, it was hot and sticky out, every few feet punctuated by a new cloud of mosquitoes or fireflies. I thought maybe I could hear the “water” the bar’s name referred to somewhere in the woods behind it. Not the lake itself, I didn’t think. A creek, probably.
I always felt a bit anxious going to neighborhood spots like this when I wasn’t a part of the neighborhood, but Gus appeared to be at ease, and hardly anyone looked up from their beer or pool tables or trysts against the wall beside the old-school jukebox. It was a place full of camo hats and tank tops and Carhartt jackets.
I was extremely grateful Gus had encouraged me to change my outfit.
“Who are we meeting?” I asked, sticking close to him as he surveyed the crowd. He tipped his chin toward a lone woman at a high-top near the back.
Grace was in her midfifties and had the rounded shoulders of someone who’d spent a lot of time sitting, but not necessarily relaxed. Which made sense. She was a truck driver with four sons in high school and no romantic partner to lean on.
“Not that that matters,” she said, taking a sip from her Heineken. “We’re not here to talk about that. You want to know about Hope.”
Hope, her sister. Hope and Grace. Twins from northern Michigan, not quite the Upper Peninsula, she’d already told us.
“We want to talk about whatever you think is relevant,” Gus said.
She wanted to be sure it wasn’t for a news story. Gus shook his head. “It’s a novel. None of the characters will have your names or look like you, or be you. The cult won’t be the same cult. This is to help us understand the characters. What makes someone join a cult, when you first noticed something off with Hope. That sort of thing.”
Her eyes glanced off the door then back to us, an uncertainty in her expression.
I felt guilty. I knew she’d come here of her own volition, but this couldn’t be easy, scraping the muck out of her heart and holding it out to a couple of strangers.
“You don’t have to tell us,” I blurted, and I felt the full force of Gus’s eyes cut to me, but I kept my focus on Grace, her watery eyes, slightly parted lips. “I know talking about it won’t undo any of it. But not talking about it won’t either, and if there’s anything you need to say, you can. Even if it’s just your favorite thing about her, you can say it.”
Her eyes sharpened into slivers of sapphire and her mouth tightened into a knot. For a second, she was stock-still and somber, a midwestern Madonna in a stone pietà, some sacred memory cradled in her lap where we couldn’t quite see it.
“Her laugh,” she said finally. “She snorted when she laughed.”
The corner of my mouth inched up but a new heaviness settled across my chest. “I love when people do that,” I admitted. “My best friend does it. I always feel like she’s drowning in life. In a good way. Like it’s rushing up her nose, you know?”
A soft, wispy smile formed on Grace’s thin lips. “A good way,” she said quietly. Then her smile quivered sadly, and she scratched her sunburned chin, her sloped shoulders rising as she set her forearms on the table. She cleared her throat.
“I didn’t,” she said thickly. “Know anything was off. That’s what you wanted to know?” Her eyes glossed and she shook her head once. “I had no idea until she was already gone.”
Gus’s head tilted. “How is that possible?”
“Because.” Tears were rushing into her eyes even as she shrugged. “She was still laughing.”
WE WERE SILENT for most of the drive home. Windows up, radio off, eyes on the road. Gus, I imagined, was mentally sorting the information he’d gotten from Grace.
I was lost in thoughts about my dad. I could so easily see myself avoiding the questions I had about him until I was Grace’s age. Until Sonya was gone, and Mom too, and there was no one left to give me answers, even if I wanted them.
I wasn’t prepared to spend my life avoiding any thought of the man who’d raised me, feeling sick whenever I remembered the envelope in the box atop the fridge.
But I was also tired of the pain inside my rib cage, the weight pressing on my clavicles and anxious sweat that cropped up whenever I considered the truth for too long.
I closed my eyes and pressed back into the headrest as the memory surged forward. I tried to fight it off, but I was too tired, so there it was. The crocheted shawl, the look on Mom’s face, the key in my palm.
God, I didn’t want to go back to that house.
The car stopped and my eyes snapped open.
“Sorry,” Gus stammered. He’d slammed the breaks to avoid plowing into a tractor at a dark four-way stop. “Wasn’t paying attention.”
“Lost in that beautiful brain of yours?” I teased, but it came out flat, and if Gus heard, he gave no indication. The more animated corner of his mouth was twisted firmly down.
“You okay?” he asked.
He was quiet for another beat. “That was pretty intense. If you want to talk about it …”
I thought back to Grace’s story. She’d thought Hope was doing better than ever when she first fell in with her new crowd. She’d gotten off heroin, for one thing—a nearly insurmountable challenge. “I remember her skin looked better,” Grace had said. “And her eyes. I don’t quite know what about them, but they were different too. I thought I had my sister back. Four months later, she was dead.”