The Last House Guest Page 2

Earlier in the day, she’d thrown open the door to the guesthouse without knocking, called my name from the front room, then again even as she entered my bedroom, where I sat with the laptop open on the white comforter, in my pajama shorts and long-sleeve thermal with my hair in a bun on top of my head.

She was already dressed for the day, whereas I was catching up on my responsibilities for Grant Loman’s property management company, one thread of his massive real estate development firm. Sadie, wearing a blue slip dress and gold strappy sandals, had leaned on her hip so I could see the jut of her bone, and said, What do we think of this? The dress clung to every line and curve.

I’d reclined against my pillows, bent my knees, thinking she was going to stay. You know you’ll freeze, right? I’d said. The temperature had plummeted the last few evenings—a precursor to the abandoning, as the locals called it. In a week, the restaurants and shops along Harbor Drive would change hours, while the landscapers became school maintenance personnel and bus drivers, and the kids who worked as waitresses and deckhands took off for the slopes in New Hampshire to work as ski instructors. The rest of us were accustomed to sucking the summer dry, as if stockpiling water before a drought.

Sadie had rolled her eyes. I already have one mother, she’d said, but she’d pieced through my closet and shrugged on a chocolate brown sweater, which had been hers anyway. It turned her outfit into the perfect blend of dressy and casual. Effortless. She’d spun toward the door, her fingers restless in the ends of her hair, her energy spilling over.

What else could she have been getting ready for if not this?

Through the open patio doors, I noticed Connor sitting at the edge of the pool, his jeans rolled up and his bare feet dangling in the water, glowing blue from the light below. I almost walked up to him and asked if he’d seen her, but that was only because drinking opened up a sense of nostalgia in me. Even then, I thought better of it. He caught me staring, and I turned away. I hadn’t expected to see him here, was all.

I pulled out my phone, sent her a text: Where are you?

I was still watching the screen when I saw the dots indicating she was writing a response. Then they stopped, but no message came through.

I sent one more: ???

No response. I stared at the screen for another minute before slipping the phone away again, assuming she was on her way, despite Parker’s claim.

Someone in the kitchen was dancing. Parker tipped his head back and laughed. The magic was happening.

There was a hand on my back, and I closed my eyes, leaning in to it, becoming someone else.

It’s how these things go.

* * *

BY MIDNIGHT, EVERYTHING HAD turned fragmented and hazy, the room thick with heat and laughter despite the open patio doors. Parker caught my gaze over the crowd from just inside the patio exit, tipped his head slightly toward the front door. Warning me.

I followed his eyes. There were two police officers standing in the open doorway, the cold air sobering us as the gust funneled from the entrance out the back doors. Neither man had a hat on, as if they were trying to blend in. I already knew this would fall to me.

The house was in the Lomans’ name, but I was listed as the property manager. More important, I was the one expected to navigate the two worlds here, like I belonged to both, when really I was a member of neither.

I recognized the two men but not well enough to pull their names from memory. Without the summer visitors, Littleport had a population of just under three thousand. It was clear they recognized me, too. I’d spent the year between ages eighteen and nineteen in and out of trouble, and the officers were old enough to remember that time.

I didn’t wait to hear their complaint. “I’m sorry,” I said, making sure my voice was steady and firm. “I’ll make sure we keep the noise level down.” Already, I was gesturing to no one in particular to lower the volume.

But the officers didn’t acknowledge my apology. “We’re looking for Parker Loman,” the shorter of the two said, scanning the crowd. I turned toward Parker, who had already begun pushing through the crowd in our direction.

“Parker Loman?” the taller officer said when he was within earshot. Of course they knew it was him.

Parker nodded, his back straight. “What can I do for you gentlemen,” he said, becoming business Parker even as a piece of dark hair fell into his eyes; the sheen of sweat made his face glow brighter.

“We need to speak with you outside,” the taller man said, and Parker, ever the appeaser, knew the line to walk.

“Of course,” he said, not moving any closer. “Can you tell me what this is about first?” He also knew when to talk and when to demand a lawyer. He already had his phone in his hand.

“Your sister,” the officer said, and the shorter man’s gaze slipped to the side. “Sadie.” He gestured Parker closer, lowering his voice so I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but everything shifted. The way Parker was standing, his expression, the phone hanging limply at his side. I stepped closer, something fluttering in my chest. I caught the end of the exchange. “What was she wearing, last time you saw her?” the officer asked.

Parker narrowed his eyes. “I don’t . . .” He looked at the room behind him, seeming to expect that she’d slipped inside without either of us noticing.

I didn’t understand the question, but I knew the answer. “A blue dress,” I said. “Brown sweater. Gold sandals.”

The men in uniform shared a quick look, then stepped aside, allowing me into their group. “Any identifying marks?”

Parker pressed his eyes shut. “Wait,” he said, like he could redirect the conversation, alter the inevitable course of events to follow.

“Yes, she does, right?” Luce said. I hadn’t noticed her standing there; she was just beyond Parker’s shoulder. Her hair was pulled back and her makeup had started to run, faint circles under her eyes. Luce stepped forward, her gaze darting between Parker and me. She nodded, more sure of herself. “A tattoo,” she said. “Right here.” She pointed to the spot on her own body, just on the inside of her left hip bone. Her finger traced the shape of a figure eight turned on its side—the symbol of infinity.

The cop’s jaw tensed, and that was when the bottom fell away in a rush.

We had become temporarily unmoored, small boats in the ocean, and I sensed that seasick feeling I could never quite overcome out on the water at night, despite growing up so close to the coast. A disorienting darkness with no frame of reference.

The taller cop had a hand on Parker’s arm. “Your sister was found on Breaker Beach . . .”

The room buzzed, and Luce’s hands went to her mouth, but I still wasn’t sure what they were saying. What Sadie was doing on Breaker Beach. I pictured her dancing, barefoot. Skinny-dipping in the ice-cold water on a dare. Her face lit up from the glow of a bonfire we’d made from driftwood.

Behind us, half the party continued, but the noise was dropping. The music, cut.

“Call your parents,” the officer continued. “We need you to come down to the station.”

“No,” I said, “she’s . . .” Packing. Getting ready. On her way. The cop’s eyes widened, and he looked down at my hands. They were gripping the edge of his sleeve, my fingertips blanched white.

I released him, backed up a step, bumped into another body. The dots on my phone—she had been writing to me. The cops had to be wrong. I pulled out my phone to check. But my question marks to Sadie remained unacknowledged.

Parker pushed past the men, charging out the front door, disappearing around the back of the house, headed down the path toward the B&B. In the commotion, you couldn’t contain us. Luce and I sprinted after him through the trees, eventually catching up in the gravel parking lot, pushing into his car.

The only noise as we drove past the dark storefronts lining Harbor Drive was the periodic hitch in Luce’s breath. I leaned closer to the window when we reached the curve leading to Breaker Beach, the lights flashing ahead, the police cars blocking the entrance to the lot. But an officer stood guard behind the dunes, gesturing with a glowing stick for us to drive on by.

Parker didn’t even slow down. He took the car up the incline of Landing Lane to the house at the end of the street, standing dark behind the stone-edged drive.

Parker stopped the car and went straight inside—either to check for Sadie, also disbelieving, or to call his parents in privacy. Luce followed him slowly up the front steps, but she looked over her shoulder first, at me.

I stumbled around the corner of the house, my hand on the siding to steady myself, passing the black gate surrounding the pool, heading straight for the cliff path beyond. The path traced the edge of the bluffs until they ended abruptly at the northern tip of Breaker Beach. But there was a set of steps cut into the rock from there, leading down to the sand.

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