She fished something out of her pocket. An envelope with my name scrawled across it, a key resting atop it. A tab hung from the key with an address scribbled in the same unmistakable handwriting as the chicken scratch on the envelope. Dad’s.
“He wanted you to have this,” she said. “It’s yours.”
She pushed it into my palm, holding on for a second. “It’s a beautiful house, right on Lake Michigan,” she blurted. “You’ll love it. He always said that you would. And the letter is for your birthday. You can open it then, or … whenever.”
My birthday. My birthday wasn’t for another seven months. My dad would not be there for my birthday. My dad was gone.
Behind the woman, Mom unfroze, moving toward us with a murderous expression. “Sonya,” she hissed.
And then I knew the rest.
That while I’d been in the dark, Mom had not.
I closed the Word document, like clicking that little X in the corner would shut out the memories too. Looking for a distraction, I scrolled through my inbox to the latest email from my agent, Anya.
It had arrived two days ago, before I left New York, and I’d found increasingly ridiculous reasons for putting off opening it. Packing. Moving things into storage. Driving. Trying to drink as much water as I could while peeing. “Writing,” heavy on the scare quotes. Drunk. Hungry. Breathing.
Anya had a reputation for being tough, a bulldog, on the publishers’ end of things, but on the writers’ end, she was something like Miss Honey, the sweet teacher from Matilda, mashed together with a sexy witch. You always desperately wanted to please her, both because you had the sense that no one had loved and admired you so purely before and because you suspected she could sic a herd of pythons on you, if she so chose.
I drained my third gin and tonic of the night, opened the email, and read:
Helloooo, you beautiful and miraculous jellyfish, angelic artist, money-maker mine,
I know things have been SO crazy on your end, but Sandy’s writing again—really wants to know how the manuscript’s coming slash whether it will still be ready by the end of the summer. As ever, I’m more than happy to hop on the phone (or instant message, or a Pegasus’s back as need be) to help you brainstorm/hash out plot details/WHATEVER it takes to help bring more of your beautiful words and unparalleled swoon into the world! Five books in five years was a tall order for anyone (even someone with your spectacular talent), but I do believe we’ve reached a breaking point with SLB, and it’s time to grin and birth it, if at all possible.
Grin and birth it. I suspected it’d be easier to deliver a fully formed human baby out of my uterus at the end of this summer than to write and sell a new book.
I decided that if I went to sleep now, I could pop out of bed early and crank out a few thousand words. I hesitated outside the downstairs bedroom. There was no way to be sure which beds Dad and That Woman had partaken of.
I was in a funhouse of geriatric adultery. It might’ve been funny, if I hadn’t lost the ability to find anything funny in the last year spent penning rom-coms that ended with a bus driver falling asleep and the whole cast going off a cliff.
It’s SUPER interesting, I always imagined Anya saying, if I were to actually send in one of these drafts. I mean, I would read your GROCERY list and laugh-cry doing it. But it’s not a Sandy Lowe book. For now, more swoon and less doom, babycakes.
I was going to need help sleeping here. I poured myself another G&T and closed my computer. The house had gotten hot and stuffy, so I stripped to my underwear, then circled the first floor opening windows before draining my glass and flopping onto the couch.
It was even more comfortable than it looked. Damn That Woman with her beautifully eclectic tastes. It was also, I decided, too low to the ground for a man with a bad back to be climbing on and off of, which meant it was probably not used for S-E-X.
Though Dad hadn’t always had a bad back. When I was a kid, he’d take me out on the boat most weekends that he was home, and from what I’d seen, boating was 90 percent bending over to tie and untie knots and 10 percent staring into the sun, your arms thrown wide to let the wind race through your swishy jacket and—
The ache rose with a vengeance in my chest.
Those early mornings, on the man-made lake thirty minutes from our house, had always been just for the two of us, usually the morning after he got back from a trip. Sometimes I didn’t even know he was home yet. I’d just awake to my still-dark room, Dad tickling my nose, whisper-singing the Dean Martin song he’d named me for: It’s June in January, because I’m in love … I’d jolt awake, heart trilling, knowing it meant a day on the boat, the two of us.
Now I wondered if all those precious chilly mornings had been literal guilt trips, time for him to readjust to life with Mom, after a weekend with That Woman.
I should save the storytelling for my manuscript. I pushed it all out of my mind and pulled a throw pillow over my face, sleep swallowing me like a biblical whale.
When I jerked awake, the room was dark, and there was music blasting through it.
I stood and ambled, dazed and gin-fogged, toward the knife block in the kitchen. I hadn’t heard of a serial killer who began each murder by rousing the victim with R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” but I really couldn’t rule out the possibility.
As I moved toward the kitchen, the music dimmed, and I realized it was coming from the other side of the house. From the Grump’s house.
I looked toward the glowing numbers on the stove. Twelve thirty at night, and my neighbor was blasting a song most often heard in dated dramedies wherein the protagonist walks home alone, hunched against the rain.
I stormed toward the window and thrust my upper body through it. The Grump’s windows were open too, and I could see a swath of bodies lit up in the kitchen, holding glasses and mugs and bottles, leaning lazy heads on shoulders, looping arms around necks as the whole group sang along with fervor.
It was a raging party. So apparently the Grump didn’t hate all people, just me. I cupped my mouth around my hands and yelled out the window, “EXCUSE ME!”
I tried twice more with no response, then slammed the window closed and circled the first floor, snapping the others shut. When I was finished, it still sounded pretty much like R.E.M. was playing a concert on my coffee table.
And then, for a beautiful moment, the song stopped and the sounds of the party, laughter and chatter and bottles clinking, dipped to a static murmur.
And then it started again.
The same song. Even louder. Oh, God. As I pulled my sweatpants back on, I contemplated the advantages of calling the police with a noise complaint. On the one hand, I might maintain plausible deniability with my neighbor. (Oh, ’twas not I who called the constable! I am but a young woman of nine and twenty, not a crotchety old spinster who loathes laughter, fun, song, and dance!) On the other, ever since I’d lost my dad, I’d had a harder and harder time forgiving small offenses.
I threw on my pizza-print sweatshirt and stormed out the front door, marching up the neighbor’s steps. Before I could second-guess myself, I’d reached for the doorbell.
It rang out in the same powerful baritone as a grandfather clock, cutting through the music, but the singing didn’t stop. I counted to ten, then rang it again. Inside, the voices didn’t even waver. If the partygoers heard the doorbell, they were ignoring it.