There was always a lot of stuff when the Kettels traveled. They arrived that July in a car crammed with duffels and backpacks, beach towels and lawn chairs, fishing poles and board games, an outdoor grill, an espresso machine, two laptops, three smartphones, and a pair of high-powered binoculars for watching birdlife.
Their cottage, which was rented, looked sadly unprepared for this wealth of possessions.
“I see a clothesline out back,” Jessie’s father said in the silence after the motor shut down. “Therein lies hidden meaning.”
“What meaning?” asked Jonathan from the rear seat.
Richard Kettel raised his black-rimmed glasses and massaged the tender sides of his nose. “The gods of good housekeeping are angry with us. Our summer palace is not equipped with a dryer.”
“Ha, ha,” said Jonathan. “There are no gods of good housekeeping. Dad made that up, right?” He turned to Jessie beside him, but she looked away.
Their father shook his head. “The washing machine is a relic from the Dark Ages.”
“How do you know?” asked Jonathan.
“I hear voices wailing from the Great Beyond.”
“I hear birds,” Jonathan said, and they all sat still while a flock of bleating seagulls flapped by overhead.
“Looks like the roof is kind of falling off,” Julia observed from the front seat, which she’d occupied, as if by divine right, the whole way from Pittsburgh. “There are chunks of wood all over the lawn.”
“Lawn? Is that what that is?”
“It used to be one,” Jonathan said. “It grew up, that’s all.”
“It grew up. Now I see.” Their father took off his glasses and squinted. “There’s probably no dishwasher, either. What is that thing on the front step?”
Everyone leaned forward. Something with a long neck was sitting outside the door.
“A toilet plunger?” Julia ventured. “That’s what it looks like. And a bucket, I think, off to the side.”
“I hoped I was going blind,” said their father, a high school English teacher with a taste for gallows humor. “I hoped I’d gone mad and was having hallucinations.”
“No,” Julia said, “it’s a plunger. Does that mean . . .”
“Fraud and deceit!” Richard Kettel yanked open the car door. He stepped out unsteadily, as if the ground were the deck of an oceangoing vessel. Well, they were near the sea, Jessie thought. Quite near, though not actually on it. “Rhode Island saltbox,” the listing had read. “Short walk to the beach. Three
bedrooms, two baths, bed linens supplied.” They’d rented, sight unseen, for six weeks till the middle of August.
“I see something else!” Jonathan shouted. “Look, over there! I see a dragonfly, or it could be a moth, and now I’m looking at a whole mess of other things. See by the fence? Bugs!”
“Excellent,” said their father from outside the car. “Just what we need.”
At that moment Jessie bolted. She was out of the car in one jump, running away across the overgrown lawn. It wasn’t only that she needed to get away, immediately, though that was certainly true. She’d spied something, a flicker of silvery water coming through tall reeds at the lawn’s far end. She pushed her way through and arrived on a shore. Not the sandy ocean beach she’d expected, but the mud shore of a pond whose waters spread away from her, smooth and blue in the sun.
Cattails grew high all around the edges. Off to her right the pond slipped around a bend, as if more was there to be discovered. Across the way a single snow-white swan fed along a shadowed bank. Jessie let out her breath and for one perfect moment she felt happy. She felt like a swan herself, one that had just flown in from a perilous journey.
She was in a separatist mood that year, her twelfth, and in a state of irritation with everyone around her. She was irritated with her father because he looked at her with skeptical eyes and said things like “May I ask how you came to that conclusion?”
She was at odds with her older sister, Julia, because Julia was so pathetically nice to everyone. Whoever they
were, whatever they said, Julia smiled and agreed.
“What is wrong with you?” Jessie demanded. “You didn’t use to be this way.”
“What way?” Julia asked.
“I don’t know. So spineless.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that. It just makes you look ignorant,” Julia replied.
The problem with Jessie’s mother was that she worked night and day at her office in Pittsburgh. And that summer, thanks to their father dragging them off to practically the end of the earth (as Jessie had declared this New England beach town to be), she wouldn’t possibly find time to visit.
“This is not the end of the earth,” Jonathan had said.
“I just meant—”
“There can’t be an end to the earth because the earth is round.”
“I know it’s round!”
“So why did you say . . .”
The trouble with her brother, Jonathan, was that he was six years old.
Jessie watched a second swan arrive to join the first across the pond. Hardly had it landed when a crunch of feet sounded behind her. A body crashed through the reeds. Julia. In all her splendor. Everyone stared at her wherever she went.
“It’s only a pond,” Julia said, coming up to stand beside her sister. “Where’s the sea?”
Jessie pointed. “I think the beach must be down there.”
Julia shaded her eyes. “Looks like miles away. Dad
said it would be closer. He should’ve let Mom make the arrangements. He never gets things right.”
Julia was beautiful, everyone said so. She had a heart-shaped face, unblemished skin, and chocolate-brown eyes with thick black lashes that curled up naturally at the ends. She would never in her life need a drop of mascara. A perfect stranger had stopped her on the sidewalk and asked, “Are you a model? . . . No? Well, you should be, my dear.”
“Maybe it’s shorter by the road,” Jessie told her. “The real estate agents said we could walk to it.”
“I think I’ll drive,” Julia said, which was not a boast. She was sixteen and had her license.
Julia didn’t boast about herself. She’d become too polite. She’d thanked the perfect stranger for his compliment. She seemed oblivious to the boys who wolf-whistled on the street. When her computer literacy teacher, Mr. Clarke, invited her to go with him—as a student representative, he said—to a poetry reading upstate, Julia said it was because he admired her poems.
“Are you going to let her go?” Jessie had asked their mother.
“She’ll be mad.”
“She thinks she’s a poet,” Jessie said. “A serious poet.”
Her mother looked amused. “Julia’s new in her skin, so she’s trying things out. She doesn’t fully understand her effect on people.”
“Oh, don’t worry, she understands,” Jessie had informed her. “She understands perfectly well. She just pretends not to.”
Now, standing beside her sister, Jessie felt the pond, too, begin to fall under Julia’s power. Its private gaze shifted from Jessie—short, with thick legs and brown, rabbity hair—to Julia, tall and dark and carelessly perfect.
Jessie picked up a large rock and heaved it into the water. Julia backed up and shrieked. “Why did you do that? I’m drenched! You are so impossible!” She huffed off toward the house.
The pond also seemed to retreat after this. The sun went behind a cloud. The swans rose off the water and flew away. The reeds took on a mean look around the water’s edge and, removing their magical protection of a minute ago, allowed the sound of voices to come through.
“Just as I predicted, there’s no clothes dryer in this house,” Jessie heard her father say. “And of course no dishwasher.”
“There’s a washing machine, though,” Jonathan’s voice piped up cheerfully. “You said there wouldn’t be, and there is, I saw it.”
“What I said was, the washing machine would be from the Dark Ages. But I was wrong.”
“It’s from the French Revolution.”
“What’s the French Revolution?”
“A time of torture and beheadings. A time of madness and despair. A time of . . .”
Jessie stopped listening. Something was floating in the
water off to her right. It was a wood platform of some kind. She saw rusted nails and a board’s sawed-off edge. She bent and reached to draw it closer, but the platform bobbed away.
Behind her a car door slammed and the voices of her family broke through again.
Julia: “I can’t get a signal on my cell phone.”
Jonathan: “Let me see.”
“Look. It’s not working.”
“I see one bar. Nope, now it’s gone.”
“Dad! There’s no reception here.”
“Well, call the police.”
“Dad! What are we supposed to do? We’re cut off.”
“I saw something that looked like a telephone pole on the way in, with wires attached.”
“But what about my laptop? It won’t work either! No way there’s Wi-Fi here.”
“Such is life.”
“What do you mean, ‘such is life’? It might be your life, but it’s not mine. I need to be in touch,” Julia said, sounding more like her real self than she had in months.
“Jessie!” her father shouted. When she didn’t answer at once, his voice rose anxiously. “Jessica Kettel, where have you gone?”
When she still didn’t answer—the heavy wooden platform was bobbing closer again—her father cried out in greater alarm.
“Jessie! What’s wrong? Answer me now!”
This time she shouted back. “It’s okay, Dad, I’m right here. I’m coming and I’m perfectly fine.”