The Perils of Pond Scum
Two minutes after it happened, I wasn't sure it had. I could see the glass on the door from the broken picture, I could feel the throb in the back of my head where it had snapped into the wall, but I could also see and feel Jeffrey, his face contorted with shock, his hand trembling as it touched my face.
"My God, Hannah, look at us. Do you see what you've done? Is this how you want it?"
I pushed his hand away, trying to focus. What had I done? I had walked into the dark apartment. My apartment. Jeffrey's voice had come at me. Where have you been? I'd reached for the light, but something had kept me from it. Hands. Strong. Angry. Had they grabbed me? Thrown me? I'd crashed backward into the wall. I knew that much. I'd crashed into the wall, and the light had come on, and there was Jeffrey.
Jeffrey. In my apartment. A week after I'd told him I needed some time alone.
"Forgive me," said Jeffrey now. I could see the rise and fall of his chest under the shirt as he struggled to calm himself. "I frightened you, didn't I? I wanted to talk. I let myself in. But you upset me, Hannah. I had no intention of -- " He broke off and dashed a hand across his face. "Are you all right?"
I felt my head and winced.
"You're not. Here. Sit down." He led me to the couch and sat beside me.
Skillful, gentle fingers probed my scalp. That was one of the first things I'd
loved about Jeffrey. First the wide, easy smile, but second had been those competent, reassuring hands.
No, it couldn't have been his hands.
Jeffrey stopped probing and smoothed back my hair. "Not even a goose egg. But you see what can happen. I'm sorry I barged in and frightened you. This isn't me tonight. But this isn't you, either. This isn't like you, sneaking around."
"I wasn't sneaking around. I went with Ellen and Paul to -- "
"You can leave Ellen out of it, Hannah. We know Ellen wasn't there, don't we? It was you and Paul. But Ellen's part of the problem, too, isn't she? Your sister doesn't like us spending all our time together, does she? I don't know why you listen to her. That's where the problem lies. You don't need time alone. We need time alone. Just the two of us, without all this
interference. I know what we'll do, we'll go the cabin."
"Jeffrey -- "
"Hush." Jeffrey leaned back, bringing me with him until my cheek rested on the hard plane of his chest.
"You know I'm right, Hannah. You don't solve problems by hiding from them. We'll get out of the city, go to the cabin for the long weekend on Saturday. We'll be alone. We'll talk. We'll sort this out." While he talked, his hands, those hands, stroked my hair, my neck, my face.
I knew I should move, get up, ask him to leave. Why did it suddenly seem so hard, so pointless, so...so silly? And what if Jeffrey was right? Maybe if we were alone, if there was no third party to make him angry, if I didn't make him angry...And what had he done, after all? He'd gotten jealous. It was flattering, really.
Jeffrey's hands gripped my shoulders and eased me sideways. "Look, you're right. You need time of your own. I can see that. I'll go now. I'll pick you up
When he picked me up on Saturday, and I saw the fresh haircut, the face shaved to the bone, the jacket I particularly loved that made him look so broad in the
back, I thought of Harry's. That's where we'd met, Harry's Tap. Jeffrey had worn that jacket at Harry's. Everything had been fresh and new at Harry's. Jeffrey had met me, wanted me, wooed me.
"We're getting a good early start," said Jeffrey now. He smiled at me from the driver's seat, that smile I'd first met at Harry's. "Or should I say a good fresh start?"
A fresh start. To go back to the way it was at Harry's. Suddenly, the weekend ahead of me glimmered brightly.
My daydreams dissolved as Jeffrey started talking, filling me in on the history of the cabin. It belonged to Jeffrey's father, divvied his way in a nasty divorce settlement. It was a treasure beyond compare, said Jeffery, sitting virtually alone in the middle of two thousand acres of conservation land. Most of the year, it sat there empty, waiting for Jeffrey's father to remember he owned it and blow down the expressway for a getaway summer weekend with most of the people you'd expect him to want to get away from. He brought business associates, politicians, friends, acquaintances, anyone he could find, said Jeffrey.
But Jeffrey didn't seem to resent this parental neglect as much as I thought he might. He talked calmly of arranging with his father, once he came of age, for his own time at the cabin. July and August were his father's. The off-season months were Jeffrey's own. Usually, because of the risk of frost, Jeffery
drained the pipes and closed up the cabin the last weekend in September. It was only the unseasonably warm October, a true Indian summer, that had prompted the late visit this year.
At first, as Jeffrey talked about the cabin, I listened attentively -- how there were plenty of deer, fox, trout. How there were no phones, electricity, neighbors. But as the sun beat through the windshield and the tires hummed over the highway and Jeffrey's voice rose and fell, I began to feel drowsy. I closed my eyes.
I woke when we hit the first rut in the dirt road.
"You just missed Fairnham," said Jeffrey.
"Our last sight of civilization. If you could call it that. A post office, a laundromat, and a town hall."
I looked around. On either side of me was nothing but wilderness -- deep, black, wild. Huge pines blocked the light from overhead, and thick seedlings
and bull briars and dead stumps obliterated the ground.
We rattled in and out of the ruts for what seemed like another ten miles, until Jeffrey suddenly yanked the wheel hard right and we plunged into the trees.
Jeffrey laughed. "Almost there now."
When I'd collected myself, I could see that we weren't forging a new trail through virgin forest, as I'd first supposed, but were actually following a faint track through the pine needles and dead leaves. It seemed to go on forever, the forest crowding closer and closer on each side, until finally, just when I was sure if I didn't see sky or light or air I would suffocate,
I saw the glimmer of the water through the trees.
The car rolled to a stop fifty feet on.
"Like it?" asked Jeffrey.
I didn't answer right away. I wasn't sure. If I looked straight ahead, the gloom of the woods seemed to have disappeared as if someone had waved a magic
wand, and the sun stretched a welcome pool of light across the surface of the pond. A narrow dock of rough planking bridged the gap between sun and cabin, but when I turned to look at the cabin itself, I saw that neither sun nor water had penetrated that far. The cabin was nestled in shade so dark it seemed like night, and the deeply stained clapboards of the porch wrapped what I could see of the doors and windows in even blacker shadows. I felt Jeffrey's eyes swivel in my direction.
"I...yes. It's...the pond...it's beautiful."
He grinned. "Wait till you see the inside." He pulled me after him up three stone steps to the cabin. When I stepped onto the porch, the floor gave slightly under me. Jeffery pulled a rusty key from his jacket pocket, scraped it into the lock, and the door opened with a moan. He stood back, and I stepped inside.
It smelled of must. A pale green light oozed through a crack in the shutters and wobbled across the floor, illuminating what the previous tenants had left us chewed mattress batting, empty seed casings, mice droppings. My eyes traveled to the farther wall.
A pair of beady black eyes stared back at me.
Two paces took Jeffrey across the room. He snatched something off the wall, pulling it into the light. The glass eyes of a stuffed fox gleamed at me.
Jeffrey laughed. He put the fox down and showed me around.
The room we stood in seemed to be most of it -- living area to the left of the wood stove, with an iron cot for a couch and a wooden crate for a table. The
kitchen was to the right of the stove -- a wood table, two chairs with missing rungs, a small ice box, a sink complete with rusty pump, a metal cupboard. A
collection of fishing rods hung suspended from the rafters.
Jeffrey led me into the bedroom. The bed seemed to fill it, with no more than a foot to spare all around. I looked for the bathroom and found it through a crack in the shutters, a box like a wooden phone booth twenty yards off in the pines. I must have peered through that cracked shutter a long time.
Jeffrey spoke from behind me. "Who's out there?"
"No one. Aren't there any neighbors at all?"
"Not anymore. I told you, we're smack dab in the middle of conservation land. Our cabin and the Blakes' down the beach were the only ones here before the park came in. By law, we both have lifetime use, but Blake abandoned his a couple of years ago. Come on. You clean up while I open up. The broom's behind
the ice box."
Jeffrey went out, and almost at once I heard the sound of creaking boards as he removed the shutters. The light that filtered in through the trees did little to lighten the dark rooms. I found the broom and swept up the mouse residue. I unpacked our sheets and made the bed. By the time I'd filled the kitchen cupboard with our provisions, Jeffery was no longer there.
I stepped out onto the porch. No Jeffrey. The sun was high above the towering trees, but I could see the spot where it would later disappear behind them, off
to the west, and I felt a moment of panic. I didn't want to see this place without the sun. I crept onto the dock and looked along the beach. I saw a second dilapidated dock a hundred yards to the left but no signs of life. Jeffrey had been right. Our lone neighbor was gone.
I turned around and called, hoping I'd defeated any sounds of panic. "Jeffrey!"
"Down here." The voice came from underneath the cabin somewhere. "Pipes are all right. Try the pump, will you?"
I went inside and pumped the handle. Rusty brown filth sputtered out into the sink.
"Keep going," said Jeffrey behind me. "It'll clear."
He disappeared again, but by the time I'd pumped the water clear, he was back with an armload of wood.
"I'll have to cut more. We'll need the stove nights."
Suddenly, I felt the need of air. Sunlight. "Could we take a walk?"
Jeffrey followed me out. I stood on the dock and looked left and right. The choice was clear. To the east, the white sand beach disappeared into choking
reeds and undergrowth twenty yards beyond our dock, but to the west, the sand stretched in a welcoming crescent all the way to the absent neighbor's dock
and beyond. We stepped o the dock and walked west.
Sun or no sun, I found myself reaching for Jeffery's hand. As we neared the Blake cottage, his fingers tensed in mine.
"What's the matter?"
"There's a chair on the porch."
"Oh? You think he's here?"
"No. He hasn't come in years. And there's no car. I just never noticed that chair before."
Jeffrey stared at the cabin, and I stared with him, curious. It seemed much like ours, only smaller, if that were possible, with the same dark clapboards and tiny windows, but the sticks and leaves on the roof, the rip in the screen door, made it seem somehow lonely and forlorn.
Jeffrey seemed to find it the same. He turned us around. "Come on, let's go back. We've got work to do."
Jeffrey assigned me my usual chores -- washing the dishes, making the stew. After I'd figured out the ways and means of the primitive kitchen and the stew was bubbling on the stove, I stepped outside and was surprised to see most of the day was gone. The sun brushed the tops of the trees. I could hear the sound of Jeffrey's ax behind me in the woods somewhere. I walked out on the dock and sat down, my feet dangling just above the water, watching the sun disappear.
Suddenly, one of the tall, dark posts on the distant dock moved. Something splashed out of the water, danced into the air, flopped back into the water.
After I saw the fish, I noticed the black rod, arching between the long shadow of the man on the dock and the fish. I watched, fascinated, as the rod dipped and reared, the man rocking with it, until the fish blasted out of the water again. It gave one last sharp, silver twist in midair and seemed to grow wings. The rod snapped backward, the fish soared in a graceful arc and splashed into the pond, free.
I hadn't meant to clap. The sound seemed to echo over the water like a small burst of cannon fire. The shadow on the dock turned in my direction. I felt the
dock tremble under my feet, and Jeffrey spoke from behind me.
"So he is here."
I turned, surprised at his tone, the words more hissed than spoken.
I touched Jeffrey's arm. "So he's here. It doesn't matter."
"Doesn't matter? Of course it matters. That was the point. I wanted us to be alone."
I laughed, waving a shaky hand at the miles and miles of blackening woods. "I think we've got enough room."
Jeffrey looked down at me. The lumpiness in his jaw eased as he smiled. The odd sunless panic I'd felt moved off. He put his arm around me, and we walked together up the dock.
Just before we stepped onto the porch, I looked again for the fisherman, but he was gone.
The lantern helped. So did the wood stove. So did the bubbling stew. So did Jeffrey, the old Jeffrey, the Jeffrey of Harry's Tap, talking and laughing and
reaching across the rickety table to touch my hand.
Once the stew was gone, the plates washed, the wine glasses refilled, he stood up and led me to the cot. He propped the pillows behind him, pulled me down
against his shoulder. "Now," he said. "Let's hear it. What's wrong? What's happened to us, Hannah? Or should I ask what's happened to you? I still feel the same. And you know, deep down inside where it counts, I think you do, too."
"Jeffrey," I said, and stalled. It must have been the wine. My mind seemed to have slipped into neutral.
"That's it, then. I was right, wasn't I? It's not us. When it's just the two of us, away, alone, there's nothing wrong. You belong with me, Hannah, can't you see that?"
The arm around me tightened. Was he angry? I didn't want Jeffrey angry. And now, right now, it did seem that I belonged there with him. The wood crackled comfortably in the stove, the lantern warmed the dark wood walls, Jeffrey's hands warmed my skin, and any misgivings I might have had about him seemed to recede with the black woods.
But I slept badly that night, just the same, too alert to woods noises and cabin smells and phantom visions. When daylight came, I did better and was
still in a muddled half-doze when Jeffrey's lips brushed my cheek at nine.
"I have to run into town for ice. Stay put. The coffee's on the stove."
The words hardly registered. I only snapped wide awake when the car engine roared. "Jeffrey!" I grabbed my robe and raced onto the porch, but I was seconds too late. The car's brake lights winked once through the trees and were gone.
But the sun was there, a glorious lemon balloon floating over the treetops, already dispelling the shadows and warming the air. I went inside for coffee and brought it out onto the dock. I stretched my toes to the water. It was surprisingly warm. When I finished the coffee, I went back inside, put on my
bathing suit, took a running start off the dock, and plunged.
It was colder down below. I broke the surface gasping and struck out along the shore in a stiff crawl. It had been some time since I'd done any serious swimming, and I tired way too soon. I was twenty yards from our neighbor's cabin when I stopped, exhausted. I decided to cut straight to shore and walk home. I angled toward the beach and climbed out onto the sand, shivering. I was leaning over wringing out my hair when a voice spoke from behind.
"Stabbed in the back?"
My heart bucked. I turned. A man stood there, not smiling, hands on hips, bare feet planted. The fisherman. It had to be the fisherman. But the long black shadow from the night before now seemed all gold. The sun glinted o the fine hairs on his head, chest, legs, arms. Even the khaki shorts looked gold.
He pointed at my back. "That cut."
I stumbled backward, babbling. "No. No. I wasn't stabbed. It was glass. A picture. A piece of glass. I fell into the wall, and the picture broke, and I was cut with the glass. It was an accident. A silly accident. I -- "
By the time I realized he was smiling, he stopped. He seemed to be looking at me oddly. "It was a joke. Stabbed in the back. No need to explain. But I brought it up because it looks like it could use some attention. I guess you can't see it, but it seems to be infected."
"I...oh." I stood there, breathing.
The man continued to watch me, still with the odd expression. Finally, he stretched out a hand. "Peter. Peter Blake."
I took the hand. "Hannah Templeton. I'm staying over there." I pointed to Jeffrey's cabin.
"I assumed so. You're the clapper. So you enjoy seeing men starve?"
"That fish last night was my dinner. I'm not torturing them for fun." He half smiled. "But it is fun. Especially when they put up a good fight." He stopped. He seemed to be waiting. For what, an apology?
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to clap. It was just so beautiful, and it fought so hard. It -- "
That half-smile again. "I know. He deserved to win. Will you be here long?"
"A week." I paused, at a loss. "We were surprised to see you here."
"I suppose I should say Jeffrey was surprised. He said you didn't come here
anymore. Do you know Jeffrey? Jeffrey Holtz? It's his father's cabin."
What smile there was disappeared. "I know Jeff. It's true I haven't been here in a couple of years. Last time I came, it wasn't too...pleasant."
"Well, it's certainly pleasant now."
Peter Blake didn't seem to agree. At least, he didn't answer. Maybe it had seemed more pleasant before I'd blundered onto what he must consider his front
"I'm sorry," I said again lamely. "I suppose I'm trespassing. But if I hadn't walked ashore here, I'd have washed up drowned. I don't suppose you'd have
found that too pleasant, either."
Something happened to his face. What was it? He made no attempt to answer my inane babblings, not that they deserved it, but something about the way he
continued to look at me convinced me it was best to shut up and move on. "I'd better go," I said. "Goodluck with tonight's dinner. I promise to clap if you
I left him standing there, tall, gold, silent in the sun.
Jeffrey was on our dock, waiting for me. "What was all that about?"
"That's Peter Blake. He -- "
"I know who he is. I asked you what you were doing."
I had one foot on the dock when he spoke. I took it back and left it in the sand. Not Jeffrey angry. Please, not Jeffrey angry. "I swam too far and decided to walk home. He came up and introduced himself. That's all."
"You jumped into the water without knowing the first thing about it, is that it?"
"No, I -- "
"I don't know why your idiocies still amaze me, Hannah. I should be used to it by now. Just the same, you might be interested to know there's a huge drop-
off out there. Don't you know if you tire yourself, you leave yourself susceptible to cramp? Don't you know how easy it is to drown? And don't think Peter Blake will save you. He didn't lift a finger when his fiancée drowned." Jeffrey turned and went inside.
I followed him. "Drowned?"
Jeffrey bent down, fidgeted with the stove, and spoke without turning around. "Two years ago. Right out there."
"Served her right. It was damned foolish. She had a few drinks, took the boat out, went over the side, and drowned."
"And he couldn't save her?"
"Couldn't or wouldn't. He said he wasn't even here. But if he had been, I doubt he'd have bothered. She'd been fooling around."
He straightened. The look he gave me was almost amused. "According to his version, they'd planned to meet here that weekend to talk things over, but
when he got here, she was already dead. He was the one who found her body washed up on the beach over there."
Jeffrey turned around. "For God's sake, Hannah, calm down. I was only trying to warn you, that's all. You'll be all right if you're careful."
"It's not that. I...I said something awful. To Peter Blake. I told him I almost washed up on his beach drowned. He gave me the oddest look. I couldn't
figure out -- "
I stopped mid-sentence as Jeffrey tipped back his head and laughed.
We hardly spoke at lunch. My mind was on my conversation with Peter Blake. I could feel myself blushing with mortification, and I could feel Jeffrey watching me, but I didn't meet his eyes. If he laughed again...
I was reprieved after lunch when Jeffrey went off into the woods to dig worms. When he returned, he pulled a fishing rod from the rafters and an old battered aluminum canoe from under the cabin where it had been stored. "Want to come?"
I shook my head.
Jeffrey shoved the canoe into the water and paddled out until he'd disappeared around a bend in the pond. I watched him from the window over the sink as I scrubbed the lunch dishes. When I finished cleaning up, I pulled a blanket o the shelf in the bedroom, went down to the beach, and spread it on the warm sand. But I didn't sit down. I couldn't, not with Peter Blake on my mind. What must he think of me? He must have assumed I knew his whole story and had been goading him cruelly. I summoned most of what little courage I'd ever possessed and walked down the beach, to his cabin.
He was on the porch, fixing the torn screen in the door, still without a shirt, the long, smooth muscles in his back ebbing and flowing under the gold skin until he heard me and turned around. I didn't give him a chance to speak. "I've come to apologize for what must have seemed like some very pointed and unnecessarily cruel remarks. I promise you I had no idea what happened until Jeffrey told me an hour ago. I never would have said...I wouldn't make light...I certainly didn't...I only hope you can bring yourself to understand -- "
There was no question of a smile this time, but his voice, when he spoke, sounded warmer than I deserved. "I understood two minutes after you'd gone.
It was obvious you weren't the type to go in for cruel jokes. There's no apology necessary. I'm only sorry I wasn't able to recover enough to ease your mind at the time."
"Oh, please, don't you apologize. It was all my fault. Jeffrey says I always babble like an idiot whenever I'm nervous. Thank you for being so nice about it and for bearing with my babbling a second time. Good-bye."
I turned around and beat it out of there, already down all three steps and onto the beach when I heard him say, "Good-bye."
I returned to my blanket and collapsed on my back, exhausted but with conscience eased. I think I fell asleep, but I couldn't have slept long. When I woke, I sat up and looked around. Jeffrey was still nowhere in sight, but for once I was glad. I realized somewhat belatedly there were other things worth looking at. Driving through the acres of woods, I'd noticed nothing but pine and oak, but across the pond there must have been a decent smattering of swamp maples and beeches, identifiable by the bright swatches of red and yellow among the green and bronze. The pond glistened silver in the sun, the sky was that turquoise blue that only seemed to happen in October, and the air was just crisp enough for the sun to seem worth its weight in gold.
Gold. Was it the word that made me think of Peter Blake and look his way, or was it some unearthly intuition? Whichever it was, the minute I glanced
down the beach, he emerged from his cabin and walked in my direction. He came up to the edge of the blanket and extended a hand. The hand held a white
tube of some kind. "For that cut."
I reached up and accepted the tube. I read the label, an antibiotic cream. "Thank you, but it's not that bad. Honestly."
I tried to hand back the tube, but he gazed down at me solemnly. His eyes were the pale green of water over sand. "I wish you'd use it. I've seen things like
that get nasty."
"All right." I laid the tube beside me on the blanket.
"I'd soak it first. In warm water."
I laughed. "Warm water's a little hard to come by around here."
His mouth jerked in that almost-smile. Now, of course, I could understand why that smile never made it any farther. And as I studied him closer, I realized
the reason he looked so gold was because of the tan. I looked toward the water to rest my eyes and saw that Jeffrey's canoe had finally reappeared.
"Just how do you fall into a wall?"
I started, flustered. "Excuse me?"
"You said you fell into a wall. How do you do that, exactly?"
I could see Jeffrey facing our way, spine stiff and alert. I stood up. "Do you know, it seems colder out here now than it did this morning. I think I'd better go in."
"It'll be colder inside. Look, I know it's none of my business -- " He broke off.
I kept my eyes glued to the pond. Jeffrey was paddling hard in our direction. I scooped up my blanket and the tube of cream. "I have to go. Thank you for this. I'll be sure to return it before I leave."
"I don't need it. Look -- " He began again.
I turned to face him. There was no suggestion of a smile anywhere this time. His eyes seemed locked onto me.
And I stood there caught in the beam until the canoe scraped on the sand and Jeffrey bounded up thebeach toward us.
I'd been foolish to be so afraid. Jeffrey's hand was out, his teeth gleaming, as he approached the other man. "Blake. Good to see you back. It's been some
But we weren't out of the woods yet. It was Peter Blake, not Jeffrey, whose face had turned to stone, and for a minute it looked as if he would ignore
Jeffery's hand. I think I closed my eyes. Take it. Dear God, take his hand. When I looked again, the two hands, one large and brown, the other large and white, were clenched.
The green eyes flicked toward mine, then back to Jeffrey, and Peter Blake withdrew his hand. "You're up late this year."
"Yes," said Jeffery. "Decided to take a chance on the frost. Worth it, don't you think?" He smiled at me, and I smiled back. He held out an arm, and I moved close enough so he could drape it around me. I knew the routine.
Peter Blake watched. "I brought your friend something for that cut on her back. I noticed it this morning. I'm afraid it might need medical attention."
"I've been keeping an eye on it," said Jeffrey. "Thank you. Hannah, you look cold. Let's get you back inside. How long do you plan to stay, Blake?"
"A few days. I've got some work to do on the cabin."
"Then I'm sure we'll see you," said Jeffrey.
"Yes, I'm sure you will."
I said good-bye. Peter Blake nodded in return. Jeffrey led me inside, arm still gripping my shoulder.
To this day, I don't know just what it was, if it was Peter Blake's question or the way he'd watched Jeffrey and me, but it was there on the beach that I think I saw Jeffrey, the real Jeffrey, the man behind the smile, the man behind those hands, for the first time. Whatever it was, by the time I'd stepped out of the sun and into the darkness of the cabin, I knew.
I hadn't fallen into that wall.
And I didn't belong with Jeffrey.
My first thought as we walked inside was that I would tell him right away. I would tell him I didn't want to see him anymore, and we'd pack up and go home, and my life would return to normal. Normal. It had taken a silly conversation on a beach in the middle of the wilderness for me to realize how abnormal my life had become. I saw no friends, I saw no family, I saw no one but Jeffrey. And what had happened the minute I tried to reestablish contact
with a few of those people I'd left so ruthlessly in the dust? Jeffrey had whisked me out of their reach. I think that was when I finally realized how afraid I really was. Suddenly, I knew it would be very foolish to tell Jeffrey of my decision to leave him while we were trapped here alone. Better to let him think everything was fine until we'd returned to civilization. That, then, was my goal: to return as fast as possible to civilization. With a great effort of will, I slipped my hand around his waist and smiled up at him.
"How was the fishing?"
"Nothing doing. Not that I expected it. They usually don't surface till around dusk. How about it? Want to learn how to fish? You seemed fascinated enough by Blake's poor effort yesterday."
"I'd love to," I said. What else could I say? To say anything else would convince him I was interested only in Peter Blake's fishing, not Jeffery's. Oh, I knew him so well in so many ways. Better to agree to this one thing that didn't matter while I figured out how to get him to agree to the one thing that did. "Speaking of Peter Blake, he's got me nervous about this cut. It's been throbbing like anything, and I've felt feverish all morning. I really do think I should go home and get it looked at."
Jeffrey pressed a palm against my forehead. "You don't feel hot. Here, let me look." He turned me around and pulled up my shirt. "The man's got you worked up for nothing. I grant you it's blown up a bit."
"He said I should soak it in warm water. We don't have any warm water. Really, Jeffrey, maybe we should leave and -- "
"Nonsense. Look, I've kept the coals going. We'll have water hot enough to scald you in no time."
Jeffery opened the stove, stirred up the banked coals, and tossed in fresh wood. He filled an aluminum kettle at the pump, lifted o the stove lid, and fit
the kettle neatly over the fire.
I didn't dare press it. In a matter of minutes, he had me stretched out flat on my stomach on the iron cot with a hot compress under my sweatshirt. "There.
When it cools down, resoak it. Keep it up for thirty minutes. I'll be back in an hour."
I raised my head. "Where are you going?"
"Town. That junk Blake gave you is useless. I'll get something that works." He landed a kiss halfway between my left ear and my eyebrow and left me there.
So the gambit had failed. But at least Jeffrey had no idea how my feelings had changed. Certainly, I could keep this up for one more night, one more day, and
then we'd be home. The only danger, as I saw it, was to stay clear of Peter Blake, to give Jeffrey no cause, however false, for alarm. It shouldn't be hard to avoid a man who had obviously come up here to be alone, to lay his own ghosts to rest. Our contact so far had been accidental. Medical. If I stuck to my end of the beach, there was no reason we should cross paths again.
And why, I wondered, did the remaining night and day suddenly loom twice as grim?
Knuckles rattled against the door. I bolted upright, and the compress slid off my back onto the floor.
"Who is it?"
There was no reason on earth for my heart to start kicking. I got up and opened the door. In the shadow of the porch, with his shirt on, he looked completely
"I saw Jeffrey go out. Is everything all right?"
"Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be?" I waved the compress. "See, I'm doing as you instructed. Jeffery's run into town for some better medication, but he'll be back soon."
Did he catch the warning? No. The sun creases in his forehead deepened into a frown, but instead of leaving, he stepped through the doorway.
"Look, I came over here to...God knows why I came over here. All right, no. I know why I came over here. You have every right to think I'm crazy. But I don't think I am. Something's wrong, isn't it?"
I tried to laugh. "Wrong? What gave you that idea?"
"The way you acted when I asked about that cut, for one thing. And the way you looked at him. You might say I've seen it before. You were afraid of him."
"Oh, really?" I looked at my watch, trying to think, but the only thing I could think of was that I had to get him out of there.
"And you're afraid now," said Peter Blake. "Why? He isn't here. I saw him go out in the car."
"And if he comes back and finds you here -- " I didn't have to finish my thought. I could see the light dawning across the strong planes of his face.
"Of course," he said. "That was the trouble on the beach, too. He'd have noticed it."
I didn't ask, "Noticed what?" If I had, I don't think he would have heard me. He appeared to be thinking about something else.
"But what happened to your back didn't happen because of me."
No, I thought, it didn't happen because of Peter Blake. It happened because of my brother-in-law, Paul. Poor, innocent Paul and his wife, my sister, with us the whole time. And a week ago, only a week ago, instead of seeing that blind, unreasoning jealousy for what it was, I'd taken it as flattery. But the important thing now, the crucial thing, was not to trip Jeffrey's jealousy switch again. And that meant I had to get Peter Blake out of there.
I braced myself to meet his eyes. "I told you what happened to my back. If I sounded odd, it was because I felt like a fool."
"You sounded damned odd. You'd have sounded better if you'd told me to mind my own business. That's what a normal person would have done."
"Thank you," I said coldly.
"Look. I'm sorry. Christ, I've got some nerve, talking to you about what's normal. I don't think I've said two normal words to you since I met you. The
truth of the matter is, I don't much like this Jeff Holtz of yours. I have my reasons. Or maybe I don't. I don't know."
The painful honesty in his voice shot through me. How could I have called this man ordinary? There was only one possible way to answer him.
"So that makes two of us."
For a minute, it was hard to read his face. Then it flooded with something that would have looked like relief if it hadn't been too absurd. "You shouldn't stay
here. Let me drive you home."
"And run into Jeffrey on the road? That would be the worst thing I could do, believe me. Honestly, the best thing you can do is to get out of here."
It seemed he looked at me forever. He held out his hand. "Fair enough. I won't bother you again. If you need anything, you know where to find me."
"Thank you." I shook his hand.
After he left, I expected to breathe easier, but I found I could barely breathe at all.
When Jeffrey returned, I was lying under another hot compress. He checked my wound, slathered it with something, and set to work collecting our fishing
gear, all without speaking. He handed me heavy rubber boots, two pairs of socks, a thick wool sweater.
"I need all this? If it's going to be that cold, maybe I won't bother."
"It won't be that cold."
I said nothing more.
Just as we were going out the door, Jeffery cupped my chin in his hand and smiled at me. "We didn't need the whole weekend, did we? There was nothing wrong between us, was there?"
"I pity those poor sods like Blake. Come on."
The sun was just behind the trees when we walked to the boat. Out of my peripheral vision, I could see a lamp come on in Peter Blake's cabin. We paddled in the direction Jeffrey had gone before, and I wondered, foolishly, if Peter were watching. No. Why should he?
And even if he were, it seemed in no time at all we were around the bend and gone. Jeffrey found the spot he was looking for. He threaded a worm onto my hook and cast it for me. We sat there in silence in the growing cold and dark until finally the depth of the shadows gave me courage.
"Jeffrey? You're right. We don't need the whole weekend. There's nothing wrong between us. Why don't we go home tonight?"
I didn't move or breathe.
"You're not still worrying about that ridiculous cut."
"No. Of course not. It's just that I'd like to go home." I tried a laugh. It rang false in the gloom.
"Let's face it, I can only live so long without my hair dryer. And admit it, doesn't a nice, hot bath sound good right now?"
"Delightful. But it can wait till tomorrow."
I gave up.
The silence grew longer.
"Shouldn't we go in?" I said after a while. "The wind seems to be coming up."
"Good. It'll stir up the fish."
"Well, it's awfully cold."
"We'll move around the point and get out of the wind."
I heard the hiss of his line as he reeled it in. I reeled in my own. Jeffrey took the rod from me and stashed it in the floor of the canoe. He handed me my paddle.
It must have been half a mile across the pond, and it was so dark now I could barely distinguish the trees on shore. The newly formed chop slapped loudly
against the aluminum canoe, drowning out any sounds of our paddles. As we rounded the point, the first thing I noticed was that Peter Blake's light was
gone. The second thing I noticed was that the wind was worse there. It cut through my heavy sweater and rocked the canoe dangerously.
I twisted around. "Jeffrey, let's go in. I've had enough, haven't you?"
"Yes, I think I've had quite enough."
Was something wrong with his voice? I wasn't sure. But suddenly, I wanted more than anything to get out of there. I faced front and dug in with my paddle,
willing us closer and closer to the cabin and the car and home. At first, Jeffrey's paddling seemed as determined as my own, but as soon as we pulled
within five hundred yards of the beach, I could feel our momentum slow.
When Jeffrey spoke again, it wasn't in his own voice at all but in a neat imitation of my own. "'Nothing's wrong between us.' Oh, Hannah, do you really think I'm such a fool?"
No. Not here. Not now. I thrust my paddle into the water and pulled for shore.
"I saw you. I saw him. I knew he'd come the minute my car was gone. So I parked down the road and walked back. I must admit, it didn't take him long. What's the plan? We go home, you ditch me, the two of you come back alone?"
Don't panic, I said to myself. You've been here before. The thing to do is...But what was the thing to do? Nothing I said had ever cut through this insane jealousy of Jeffrey's. No explanation ever served. But maybe that was the whole problem, my attempting to explain. I thought of Peter Blake. You'd have sounded better if you'd told me to mind my own business. That's what a normal person would have done. And in this case? What would a normal person say here? I slipped my paddle across my knees and swung around as far as I could without upsetting the canoe. "If that's what you think, Jeffrey, you are a fool. Now, it's late, and I'm cold, and I'd like to go in."
I must admit, it seemed to give him pause. A brief one. "Well, well, well, listen to you. Getting perky, is that it? Let me warn you, the last person who tried it didn't fare so well."
"I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't care. I'm going in. Now." I resumed paddling.
"Not what, Hannah, who. Rosemary Stevens. Don't you want to hear what really happened to her?"
And now it was my turn to pause. "Rosemary Stevens?"
"Peter Blake's fiancée. I suppose I should say Peter Blake's deceased fiancée. And she'd be my wife right now if she hadn't been such a fool. We'd gotten along quite swimmingly for a month or two, much better than they ever did with each other. He never knew it was me, of course. At least, he was never quite sure. But something happened. Mr. God's Gift must have gotten to her somehow. She was supposed to meet him here. She came up early to see me and tell me we were through."
I hadn't realized I'd said it out loud until Jeffrey answered. "Oh, yes, Hannah, yes. But you would have approved of our meeting, I'm sure. I could see there was no hope of changing her mind, so I accepted her decision like a gentleman. I offered her a drink, and she was so relieved at my reaction she drank it straight down. It wasn't too hard to talk her into another. I walked her home. Didn't I tell you it's easy to drown? It only takes about a foot of water. I simply shoved her in and held her down. She was in no condition to save herself. All I had to do was to launch Blake's rowboat with her sweater in it, erase any evidence of my presence here, and go back to the city."
The wind -- no, his voice -- raked through me. I couldn't stop shaking. The no that had escaped me before had been a token denial. In actual fact, almost before he'd spoken them, I'd believed every word.
"And Peter Blake -- "
"Peter Blake wasn't here, Hannah. They weren't supposed to meet till the next day. He wasn't here that night, and he isn't here now. An interesting thing happened while I was in town a while ago, didn't I tell you? A call came into the police station that his mother was seriously ill. There are no phones up here. They had to drive up to get word to him. They really should check those things before they send the cruiser around, shouldn't they? But they didn't. I saw the police pull up to his cabin when we were rounding the bend. He's probably halfway to Hempstead by now. That's where his mother lives. He told me that a few years ago. So let's see, it's three hours there, it should take a couple of hours to sort out the confusion, then three hours back. Always assuming he'd try to come back here at all."
So Peter Blake was out of the way for eight hours or more. But why would Jeffrey want Peter Blake out of the way now?
Suddenly, it was as if someone had turned a key in my brain, stepped on the gas, and told it to go. Jeffery had just told me he'd murdered Rosemary Stevens.
No matter what I said or did now, he'd have to murder me, too.
We were in the middle of the pond. No, not the middle, but five hundred yards, or six hundred now, from the beach, the cabin, the car, the quickest route home. I heard the slap of the waves against the left side of the canoe, which meant the wind was blowing us toward the opposite shore. And what was on the
opposite shore? Mile after mile of empty black woods. And what was in the canoe? Jeffrey.
I'd just made up my mind where my better chances lay when he lifted the canoe paddle, hands locked as if he were holding a baseball bat, and swung.
But for the first time in my life, I was a step ahead of him. Before he'd completed his swing, I'd begun my dive over the gunnel, and although the edge of the blade connected, it only grazed the thickest part of me -- my skull. Then two things happened that should have sealed my fate but actually saved me. The first was that as I went over the side, I swamped the canoe, which meant that Jeffery was too busy trying to stay afloat to have time to look for me. The second was that at Jeffery's insistence, I was laden down with heavy rubber boots and layers of clothing topped with a thick wool sweater.
The minute I hit the cold, black water, I went down.
It seemed I stayed down there forever. By the time I'd managed to fight my way back up into the air, there were enough waves and darkness between us to
conceal me from his view.
And at the moment, that was all I wanted, to be concealed from Jeffery's view.
I gulped every mouthful of air I could and went under again, kicking in a fury away from the canoe, and when I surfaced for a second time, Jeffery was paddling again, but he and the canoe seemed smaller than they had before. I dove once more, and the next time I came up, I knew I was right. I'd swum away from the canoe, with the wind, toward the opposite shore. Jeffrey had assumed, as anyone might assume, that I'd head for the nearest land. He was paddling parallel to the beach, combing the water between where I went over and the
cabin's shore. It was a big pond. He'd had to make a choice. And he'd chosen wrong.
I concentrated on regulating my breathing. I wouldn't, I couldn't panic. I moved my limbs just enough to keep afloat and stay warm, conserving every last ounce of energy, letting the wind and waves do the work. I'd lost all track of time and place and sense by the time my feet scraped mud, and I half stumbled, half crawled into the pitch-black wilderness of the far shore.
I learned something that night about wool. Even if it's wet, it will keep you warm. I don't know how long I lay where I landed on a sodden patch of reeds and
grass before I could breathe again, before the cold drove me to move.
Finally, I struggled to my feet and looked around.
Behind me was nothing but a black tangle. I didn't have to peer into it long to realize that if I struck out into the middle of it, I would disappear forever. Jeffrey had said there were two thousand acres of untouched wilderness out there. I could give up hoping to stumble across a house or a car. I had no sense of direction even in broad daylight on familiar terrain. At night, in unfamiliar woods, I would certainly circle aimlessly until I froze or dropped from exhaustion. There was only one thing to do: work my way around the edge of the pond as best I could in the direction of the road that ran somewhere to the east of Jeffrey's cabin. But what if I overshot the road and stumbled into the vicinity of the cabin, the vicinity of Jeffrey? And even if I did successfully find the road without running into Jeffrey, what then? Which way had we turned off that rutted road? Which way was town? I almost laughed out loud. As if I'd ever have the strength to make it all the way to town, on foot, alone.
I don't know how long I sat there shaking with cold before I saw the light come on.
It wasn't my brain this time that threw me to my feet and sent me thrashing through the reeds along the edge of the pond, but I hadn't gone far before the old cells fired themselves up. Peter Blake was there. Of course he was there. He didn't have to drive all the way to Hempstead to find out if his mother was ill. All Peter Blake had to do was drive the ten miles or so to Fairnham and make a call. And when he found out about the ruse, he'd know what was going on. He'd come back. He'd come back because he'd seen my back and he'd seen my fear and he knew Jeffery. And now Peter Blake was there, in his cabin, and as soon
as I reached him, I was as good as home.
I don't know how long it took me to fight and claw my way around that pond. The wool sweater caught on every branch, the bull briars raked my face, and I tore my hands pulling myself through the swamp grass. My thick jeans protected my legs against the jungle, but they were wet and cold and dragged me down. Jeffery's big boots were somewhere at the bottom of the pond, and I hadn't covered half the distance before my socks were in shreds, but I kept on. When I hit the smooth sand, I almost cried in relief, and when I hit Peter's first step, I know I did begin to cry, but I didn't care. There was no need for false
Tears stung my lacerated cheeks as I flung open the cabin door and walked into the glow of the lantern.
And Jeffrey's eyes.
He was wet. Dripping. But he'd kindled Peter Blake's stove, lit Peter Blake's lantern, settled in Peter Blake's chair with his stocking feet stretched toward
the fire as comfortable as any spider waiting for his fly.
"Hello, Hannah," he said. "You look surprised. Why? I'm not surprised. Although I must say, it took you so long I thought maybe you were really dead after all. But I knew if you weren't, you'd come running to him -- it only took one look at you ogling each other on the beach today. Or perhaps, in all fairness, I should say trying not to ogle each other. It was, all in all, a most pathetic display." Jeffrey pushed back his chair and stood. Now, now, Hannah, don't cry. You can't say I didn't play fair. I told you he wasn't here, didn't I? Come here, into the light. You're quite the mess. What happened to you?"
He grasped me by the arm and pulled me toward him. I couldn't have moved if I'd tried. I was drained dry. I should have known. Had I learned nothing? Running to Peter Blake to save me. There was no one to save me. There was only Jeffrey and me. As Jeffrey swung me around toward the lantern, he must have felt what there was, or wasn't, left in me. He laughed softly, tipping me backward. I dropped a hand to steady myself and brushed up against the lantern. It wobbled, casting wild shadows, making Jeffery's face dance before my eyes.
My fingers closed around the lantern. When he pulled me upward, I brought the lantern with me and smashed it into his eyes.
Jeffrey screamed and let me go, clutching at his eyes. I fell to the ground. A lick of flame streaked across the cabin floor in the wake of the trail of lamp
oil, and I rolled away from it, colliding with a metal box on the floor. It fell over and burst open. Fishing tackle. Jeffrey dashed his shirt across his face, saw me, came at me. I ripped a fishing knife out of the tackle box, and Jeffrey laughed.
"Really, Hannah, what exactly do you plan to do with that?"
I don't honestly know what I would have done if Peter Blake hadn't chosen that minute to come crashing through the cabin door. The door smashed back like a thunderclap, and Jeffrey leaped around, but not before I saw the look on his face as he went for Peter.
Peter was taller and stronger, I was sure. But Jeffrey was insane. I stepped as close as I could to the two grappling men and drove the knife home. Jeffrey's body stiffened, sagged. I saw the look of surprise on Peter's face.
"Stabbed in the back," I said calmly, and sat down on the floor, hard.
We left Jeffrey where he fell. I think I looked worse than I was, and Peter's primary concern seemed to be to load me into his Jeep and get me to a hospital.
It turned out Fairnham didn't have one, but the next town over, Pittsville, did. Somewhere between the nurse and the doctor, Peter slipped away. He must have made a few phone calls. The police met me at the hospital. It was almost daylight before I saw Peter again.
He appeared at the door of my hospital room, looking tired and surprisingly filthy until I remembered he'd half carried me to his Jeep and I'd been covered in mud and slime.
"All right?" he asked.
"Right enough. They said I can leave."
"Then let me drive you home."
"It's a long ride. I can call someone. You should -- "
He smiled, almost three-quarters. "Get out of here? I don't think so. Not this time."
Copyright © 2000 by Sally Gunning