KR OnlineFiction

Over the Border

I’ll tell them. And then I’ll go to the police.

Ellen Hutchins feels the sweat under her hands that grip the steering wheel. She wills herself to breathe evenly. Ahead, the low Canadian mountains rise up. Outside her window insects scream like sirens. The Vermont hayfields look dry as sand. Utility poles whip by, but glancing at her speedometer, she sees she’s going slowly, too slowly to arrive before nightfall.

What will their house look like? What will they look like? Surely one of them will have freckles. Surely one of them will have a narrow neck and narrow shoulders. Will they let me in? Might they hurt me? What will we do afterwards?

Ellen slows and pulls under the white portico of the tiny, back-road custom house where the man in a uniform looks into her car, glances at her papers, and asks her some questions. Yes, she’d come through here a couple of weeks ago. That’s right, her son had been driving the car behind her, but no, he isn’t with her this time. No, she has nothing to declare. No, she won’t be staying long, maybe just a few hours.

Ellen passes over the border, which she can’t see but can feel, like a slight change of mood or weather. The few signs along the road are in French and English. With no shoulder, the asphalt narrows, patched and bumpy, and for thirty miles the forest closes in, so much more dense than the woods near her apartment in New Jersey that she’d left behind that morning.

Canada. Another country. A long way from home. A place with a cottage, where, in the mild breezes off the lake, Jamie might gather himself, she’d thought, and they might draw another kind of border—between their lives together and the promise of what lay ahead for Jamie: a life of his own. Now that’s all gone horribly wrong, and she’d made it unimaginably worse, and he won’t talk with her from his dorm in Syracuse, except to say in a tight, flat voice, “I’m fine, Mom. I’m fine.”

At the general store, instead of turning right toward the lake, Ellen turns left onto the dirt road that leads into the hills where she’s never been before. Chemin du Gilman it’s called, though there are no street signs anywhere. Five days ago, she’d stared at that long, winding, dead-end road on Google maps. That must be where they live, she’d said to herself when she’d found the death notice on the Brome County, Quebec, website:

Grace Gilman, aged seventeen, beloved daughter of Cyrus and Hannah Gilman of Vale Perkins, died unexpectedly on September 2 near their home. Her smile and youthful spirits were a gift to all who knew her. Funeral services will be performed by Reverend Charles Hill at the Presbytère De South Bolton, 31, Ch Cameron RR 33, at 10 a.m. September 6.

Though she’d scoured the Internet in the days after that, Ellen had found no other news of the girl’s death, no more about how she’d “died unexpectedly,” nor what was meant by “near their home,” nor any mention of a police investigation.

At an intersection with another dirt road between rocky fields, she comes to an Arret/Stop sign shot through with bullet holes, but she keeps going and approaches an open metal gate beside a dented mailbox that says Gilman. She stops, then makes herself push the accelerator and drive through the gate. Immediately she’s back into forest again, and here things are dimming, losing depth and color. She knows she should switch on her headlights, but she doesn’t. She can still turn around, drive home, and no one will be the wiser.

A speck of yellowish light appears straight ahead, and as Ellen continues, the speck grows and becomes the shape of a first-floor window within the darker shape of a small farmhouse in a clearing at the end of the road. Its roof is a skewed rectangle, faintly blue in the twilight. From it, a bent stovepipe sticks up like a broken finger.

She rolls to a stop beside a piece of old farm machinery with metal wheels and a seat. She can see the individual panes in the window now, and beyond them a single lamp that gives off that sallow light that isn’t quite the color of butter. Otherwise, the house is dark. No lights in the two windows upstairs. No light near the door on the porch.

Though she can barely see herself in the rearview mirror, Ellen takes her brush from her purse and drags it through what she calls her “mid-length, mid-life hair.” As quietly as possible, she opens her car door and steps out, her legs and back stiff and weary. She straightens her shoulders, as she does whenever she enters her classroom. Leaves crunch under her shoes as she walks toward the porch, where a girl’s bicycle leans against the railing.

Hello. I’m sorry to bother you. My name is Ellen Hutchins, she repeats to herself, practicing, as she climbs the creaky porch stairs. After that, she’s not sure what she’ll say before she’ll try to say, I know how your daughter died.

Above Ellen’s head, the porch light snaps on, and the scratched door opens at the moment she raises her hand to knock. Now before her stands a shoeless, heavy-set man in camouflage cargo pants, heavy work socks, and a T-shirt with an unbuttoned flannel shirt covering most of it. He isn’t fat, but thick, and his thickness sags on his bones. His shoulders slope. His hair is dark and thin, his eyes round and pouched. Sleepless, it occurs to Ellen. Like me. Bent sideways in the door frame, he holds with one hand the collar of a mid-sized black dog that looks, by the way it digs at the floor, like it would rather be free than held.

“Yes?” the man says in a soft voice that doesn’t match the rest of him.

“Hello. I’m sorry to bother you. My name is Ellen . . .” But that’s all she can say for the moment.

“Are you lost?”

“I don’t know,” she manages to say. “I don’t think so.”

“Wilson, go lie down,” the man says to the dog, turning it back into the house and releasing it to reluctantly curl and sigh on a mat near the door. “Can I help you?” he asks, returning his attention to Ellen.

She takes in a long breath. “I’d like to talk about your daughter . . . Grace.”

The man’s face stiffens.

After another long breath, Ellen asks, “Are you Cyrus, Grace’s father?”, though she’s already sure he is. There’s that slope of his shoulders. And those round eyes.

Now he seems to be having trouble speaking. He looks down at the threshold.

“Yes,” says a woman’s voice from around the corner to the right. “Yes, he’s Grace’s father. Cy, let her in.”

Ellen walks through the doorway and, following Cyrus, turns right, past the dog who watches her from the mat, and into a living room. It isn’t small, but to Ellen it feels close. The dropped ceiling is low. There’s only that one window. The air, what there is of it, smells of fried fish. The dark paneling on the walls presses inward, and the furnishings, in no obvious arrangement, crowd and clutter the space: a card table, three folding metal chairs, a worn sofa covered in dog hair, a black, wood-burning stove, a standing lamp, and beneath it a woman—Hannah, according to that death notice—in a rocking chair that at the moment is still.

In the light, Hannah’s hair is wavy and a shade of brown, like cordovan, that means that once it was red. Though the room is stifling, a gray blanket covers her shoulders and chest. Ellen can see freckles on the backs of Hannah’s blunt hands, which are the only things about her that move. They are knitting something pink—a scarf? a sweater?—the yarn unwinding from a canvas bag, her fingers scooping, looping, and twisting, the needles clicking like clockwork.

Now Hannah looks up. Her face is gaunt, her eyes pale, sunk in their sockets, her skin stretched over sharp-angled bones and the long tendons in her neck. She looks thin. She looks ill, as if what strength she has left has gone to her fingers, as if she’s been in that chair for a long time and may not be able to get out of it. Except for her face, which is so much older, she could be Ellen’s age or a few years younger. As she looks over the top of her wire-rim glasses, the rhythmic movement of her hands doesn’t change, like it’s something she can’t or won’t stop. She seems strangely unsurprised to see Ellen, a complete stranger, standing before her. When her eyes meet Ellen’s, Ellen has to glance away to hold the room steady.

“Who are you?” Hannah asks, still knitting, her voice, like her husband’s, different from what you’d expect from her appearance. It’s gruff.

“I’m sorry to bother you. My name is . . .”

Hannah cuts her off. “What do you have to say about Grace?”

So quickly, it seems, they’ve come to the point. Ellen clears her throat, and she just says it: “I know how she died.”

The clicking needles pause for an instant but start right up again. Hannah and Cyrus glance at one another in a way that’s inscrutable to Ellen. At his sides, Cyrus’s hands close into fists, open, close, and open again. His eyes narrow, and he begins to say something when Hannah stops him: “Let her speak.” Then she nods at the sofa and says to Ellen, “Sit down.”

Ellen sits with her knees together, hands clasped in her lap to keep them still, and Cyrus pulls up a chair, sits, and crosses his arms on his chest, while one of his outstretched legs keeps jittering. The whole room has a jittery feel. Together the three of them form a triangle, each five feet away from the other. Cyrus and Hannah don’t say anything, their faces worn, steely, and blank.

Ellen is afraid, but she begins. Words rush out between long pauses. While she isn’t sure what she says and what stays swirling in her head, this is what she tries to tell them:

• •

Up until Labor Day, she and Jamie were two people with more or less ordinary troubles on an ordinary summer vacation in Quebec. They swam and lay in the sun on the little beach beside the boathouse. The sun and lake air seemed to open him up, and one day he said that when he came home with his auto technician’s certificate and degree, maybe he’d get a job at a dealership on Route 22, maybe rent an apartment on his own. “That would be wonderful!” Ellen told him. Then, joking, she said, “But what will I do if I can’t cook all your meals and pick up your dirty sweatshirts and jeans off the floor?” . . . and they’d both smiled at the novelty of this and looked off toward the lake. On another day, he took the boat out rowing, the sun skating on his bony shoulders. And a couple of times, when she went out on her long walks, he went “exploring,” he said, driving on those dusty local roads, going wherever they led him.

With a quiet inevitability, they moved toward his day of departure. As they’d planned, he would drive his car to Syracuse, a six-hour trip, to start his residential program at Onondaga College, and the next day Ellen would drive hers home to New Jersey to start another year teaching at Hillside Middle School for Girls, where she was known for holding students to high standards of academic performance and what she called “citizenship and character.” Neither she nor Jamie talked about his leaving, but each day they felt it approaching, like something in the air that made them more careful with each other. Maybe because he was so thin, and maybe because his father left them when Jamie was in preschool, and maybe because Ellen tried so hard to protect him from more hurt and disappointment, Jamie was a withdrawn, wary, and anxious child. For years, he clung to her. He cried when she was out of his sight. He hated kindergarten and grade school. Often he was sick and absent. He had no close friends. He flunked seventh grade. As a teen, he liked being the man of the house, fixing things around the apartment, crawling under the sink, replacing a leaky valve or gasket. But he seldom wanted to leave home, and when he had to go out and be with others, he’d have those nervous, clammed-up, frozen moments—sometimes hours—when she’d have to take him into her arms to coax him to go.

By Labor Day morning, they still hadn’t talked about his leaving. Ellen cooked his favorite breakfast, French toast. Then she made tuna sandwiches for him to take on the road. Out on the driveway, he checked the oil and water levels and repacked his car: all his stuff in the laundry basket on the back seat, along with his grimy coveralls and red tool box, the things that say who he is. He wore his usual black sneakers, no socks, a big T-shirt hanging loose on his shoulders, and faded jeans with his knees poking out, a studied, devil-may-care look. He seemed filled with a restrained excitement and apprehension, his fingertips drumming on the roof of his car. When Ellen hugged him, he hugged her back, but quickly, so that very little of them touched, and when she went to kiss him, he turned so her lips just brushed his cheek.

“Drive carefully,” she said. Despite herself, she was half expecting, almost wanting, him to get nervous and for a time to be unable to move.

“I will,” he answered, not quite meeting her eyes. He opened his car door, got right in, and closed it.

“Call me when you get there. OK?”

“I’ll try. But I’ll probably be busy moving into my dorm,” he said in that breezy voice he’d taken up of late. “I’ll call tomorrow. For sure.”

“Sounds good,” she said, biting her lip.

His engine turned over and started. He cut the wheel, and beeping once, he went up the driveway. Just like that he was gone.

That evening, as the shape of the mountain stretched across the lake, Ellen ate alone on the porch. By then, Jamie should have arrived in Syracuse and had possibly hauled his stuff up to his room and was eating supper at the dining hall. Is he eating on his own? Has he met his roommate, Gabe? If so, is Gabe as friendly in person as he was on e-mail? Is it good news or bad that Jamie hasn’t called?

Later she locked up the front and back doors, something she’d never bothered to do while Jamie was there. Upstairs in bed, she thought about her first day back at school when she would meet her new students and, in her firm but friendly voice, tell them that, as middle schoolers now, they alone were responsible for their work and behavior, that they must make healthy decisions, dress appropriately, respect each other . . . and if they did this—as she knew they would—they’d all have a terrific year. Then she tried to read but kept hearing the little night sounds in the cottage that she hadn’t noticed before: a slow drip from the bathroom faucet, the faint hum from the kitchen as the refrigerator went on and momentarily dimmed her lamp. And through the triangular window near the foot of her bed, came the sounds from outside: a nut or seed hitting and wobbling down the roof, distant laughter from porches of other cottages, the papery rustle of a few falling leaves, the lake barely lapping.

As Jamie had told her, I’ll call tomorrow. For sure. Ellen turned off her lamp. Through the window, the moonlight washed across her bed. The dark rafters sloped down. The sounds faded. Just threads of sound. Soon they were gone, and she must have been asleep . . .

Then she heard him, Jamie, in what she swore was a dream, calling “Mom” from somewhere in a kind of loud whisper, as if only to be heard by her. It was his call for help in that high pitch that she knew in all her bones. Had he fallen? A scraped knee? A bloodied elbow? Or had some kids made fun of and pushed him around again? Was he embarrassed? Scared? In the dream, she’d rush to him and hold him, until his breath calmed down. It’s all right . . .

“Mom. Mom!” Wherever he was, he was calling louder, more urgently, and it made her frantic. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t get to him, as if her sheet and blanket were holding her down.

Then she seemed to hear scratching sounds on the window screen and saw a shadow in the silvery light across the bed. A cat? A raccoon?

“What is it? What’s going on?” she called, sitting up, surprised by her own frightened voice.

“Mom! Wake up!” And it really did sound like Jamie’s voice from the window. But he was three hundred miles away. In Syracuse. In Shapero Hall.

“Who are you?” she said.

“It’s me. Me, Jamie! Couldn’t you hear me knocking downstairs?”

“What are you doing? How did you get up here?”

“I climbed the tree that goes over the roof. Let me in! Please!”

“But you’re in . . .”

“No! This is me. Let me in!”

She switched on the lamp. Squinting, she could make them out: his hands, his long fingers spread like spokes, pressed up against the screen. She threw off her sheet and blanket and ran to the window. She could see, almost feel, the mesh against his palms. She unhooked the screen, and he squeezed through hurriedly, feet first, like a kid at the end of a playground slide. The laces of his sneakers were untied. Somehow his T-shirt was inside out. His eyes looked wild. She smelled his sharp, sour sweat, his fear, his panic. Or was that also hers? He was panting and his hair looked windswept, though there wasn’t any wind at all.

She went to hug him, but he put up his hands. “Something’s happened!” he said, his voice quavering. “Something bad!”

“Are you OK?”

“Yes. It isn’t me.”

“Who? What happened?”

“A girl.”

“What?”

“A girl. She fell. She’s all messed up.”

“When?”

“Just now.”

“Where?”

“In the boathouse. Come!”

Even before Jamie had said “Come,” Ellen was moving. She grabbed the flashlight that she kept on the nightstand. The clock said 2:25 a.m. She jammed on her slippers. She threw on her robe. Following Jamie, she went down the stairs, holding tight to the railing. He unlocked the door and they hustled out into the moonlight, which was bright enough for them to follow the path down the hill, across the dewy grass, through a short stretch of forest, and around the point, without having to shine the flashlight. A girl? What girl? What do you mean “all messed up”? They didn’t say anything. Both of them were panting, sucking in the tang of pines, he racing ahead, his arms, elbows, hips, and legs flickering through shadows of trees.

They arrived at the back of the boathouse. The door was unlatched and ajar, but Jamie hesitated. He wouldn’t touch it. So Ellen pulled it open, and as he followed, she switched on the flashlight and stepped in.

Immediately she saw her. A girl. Straight ahead and six feet away. Part of her lay a few yards from the bottom of the ladder to the loft, on the wooden dock that connects the three berths in the boathouse. The rest of her, from her hips down, hung over the open bow of the rowboat that was moored in the middle berth.

Ellen gave Jamie the flashlight, which he held with both hands. “Keep it on her,” she said, and she went to her. On her knees, Ellen bent over her: a girl with a mane of dark hair, a slender neck, her face turned away, her head lying on her left arm that was stretched straight out, while the other seemed wedged behind her back, which was white, faintly ribbed, and bare. Ellen could see the line of bumps that was the girl’s spine, and on each side the sharp triangles of her shoulder blades. The girl was thin, a wisp. She wore no shirt, no bra. She wore only black panties, edged in lace. Some sweet scent, like strawberries, drifted around her. When Ellen touched her arm, it was smooth and cool. But it didn’t move. Nothing moved. When she lay her palm on the girl’s back, there was still no movement. Nor a sound. Ellen took the girl’s hand that was wedged behind her, and on the inside of the girl’s wrist, she put her fingertips on those fine veins and birdlike bones, feeling for a pulse, anything . . . nothing. Parting the girl’s hair, Ellen felt for and touched the hollow place below the girl’s ear and beside her windpipe, perhaps as Jamie had touched her . . .

“Honey,” she said. She didn’t know why.

. . . There was nothing.

Taking her shoulders, Ellen turned the girl so she’d lie on her back and look more comfortable, her left arm resting now more naturally at her side, but her head didn’t come right along. Loose was the word that came to Ellen. With both hands, she turned the girl’s face toward the light. The girl’s head, though small, was heavy. Ellen put her ear to the girl’s mouth that was slightly open. Again there was nothing, no breath. Then she did the only thing that came to mind. She tipped back the girl’s head, pinched the small, delicate nostrils, took in a breath, and sealed her mouth over the girl’s lips that were soft and smooth and had no taste. She pushed her breath into the girl, whose chest rose and fell. Again and again, Ellen did this. The chest rose and fell, but never rose on its own. Exhausted, Ellen lay her head on the girl’s chest. Then she pulled her head away, and now she could really see.

A nice-looking girl. Plain yet pretty. Though a few years older, she seemed like the kind of girl who sits quietly in the back of Ellen’s English class without ever raising her hand, and yet when you call on her, she’s done her homework. She seems to care. After school, she walks happily on her own, not among the popular girls texting on their phones. A girl whose life is elsewhere.

In the beam of the flashlight, Ellen saw narrow lips without any lipstick. A splash of freckles. A high school girl. A local girl? Yes. In passing, Ellen had seen her at the general store, a kid in jeans and a sweatshirt, buying chips and soda. Probably sixteen or seventeen.

Was this the girl’s first time like this with a boy? It must have been Jamie’s first time.

Ellen saw a red, swollen bruise at the girl’s hairline above her left ear, but there was no blood. Her eyes were open, round as chestnuts, cloudy-brown, fixed, and vacant. Gone.

Now the beam of the flashlight was shaking and lighting up other things in the boathouse: the motorboat in the berth to the right of the rowboat, the Jet Ski in the one to the left, the orange life jackets lined up on wall pegs, the hanging block and tackle to raise the boats before storms.

“Why don’t you give me that?” Ellen said.

Jamie put the flashlight in Ellen’s hand. Directly above them, moonlight spilled over the edge of the loft.

“She fell,” he said, through halting breath, tears streaming down. “We were . . . fooling around. Sort of wrestling, pushing and pulling, taking turns, and I pushed, and she was rolling over and laughing and rolling . . . and she just disappeared over the edge . . . then that crash.”

How do you trace back through the forks in the road to where you first veer toward an unthinkable end? For Ellen, there didn’t seem to be any forks at the moment, nor even a road, no place to pull over and stop, to weigh this and that and make a decision. She just said and did one thing and the next and the next, each growing from all that preceded, as if she couldn’t do otherwise. She had no concept of otherwise. There wasn’t even a word called otherwise. There was only that fierce certainty and clarity, that way a child’s scream both tears you apart and makes you whole and wildly purposeful. She simply said and did what she had to do. She even thought, This girl, she’s somebody’s daughter. Like every girl in our school. Like every girl in my homeroom and in all my classes. Like Jamie is a son to me. But none of that mattered. Not then.

“What’s her name?” For some reason, Ellen used the present tense.

“Grace.”

“That’s a pretty name. How long have you known her?”

“A few days.” Then he said something she’d never heard him say: “She liked me.”

For a second, this took her breath away.

“Is she . . .?” he asked.

“Yes. She isn’t breathing. She has no pulse.”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know. But I’ll take care of it. Is there anything of yours in the loft?”

“No.”

“Anything of hers?”

“Her clothes.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

‘Where’s your car?”

“At the edge of the field, behind some pines.”

“How far?”

“A few hundred yards.”

“OK. Listen. Walk to it. Get in. Start it. And drive. Don’t turn on your lights until you’re past the store. At customs tell them the truth, that you’re driving at this hour to get to Syracuse before the beginning of classes. Then drive straight there.” She shined the light directly at him. “For God’s sake, put your shirt on right!”

He looked down at his shirt as if he didn’t recognize it, then looked at the girl. Grace. “But . . .”

“Just do it!” she said as forcefully as she’d ever said anything. “Go!”

He pulled his shirt off and turned it right side out—his chest, arms, and stick-out ribs, all narrow, white, and so familiar in the beam of the flashlight. My kid.

He got his shirt on right. He turned and went toward the door. A few steps later he stopped and, as she knew he would, turned again with that trembling, boyish look that said I’m scared. I can’t, while some part of him also seemed to be saying, I shouldn’t.

But before he could say a word, she said, “You have to! Now go! Dammit!”

He still didn’t move. He wouldn’t or couldn’t.

Then she said the last thing she could think of: “I’m your mother! Go!”

And he went. Out of the boathouse, out of her sight.

Soon she heard his car door open, close, and his engine start. She heard him shift into first and drive out of the field, and then his tires crunching over stones on the dirt road. She heard him shift again, and for the second time in eighteen hours, the sound of his car faded into the forest.

Now there were only the girl and Ellen, and Ellen’s shaky breath, in the boathouse. Putting the flashlight, still lit, in the pocket of her robe, Ellen climbed the ladder and crawled over the edge of the loft, where the air smelled of cedar rafters and was warm and thick, as if the day’s heat was still up there. There wasn’t any head room, so she had to move while crouching, her steps making the floorboards groan. Moonlight streamed through the three closed dormer windows, then disappeared and reappeared, as she swept the flashlight around. There along one side lay some discarded sand toys and beach chairs. There along another were some tangles of rope, chains, and a cluster of wooden oars and paddles. In a corner lay an old, sun-bleached mattress. How did that get up here? Around it, like blown leaves, Grace’s clothes were scattered: blue flip-flops, a leather belt, a pair of cut-off jeans so short that the bottoms of the front pockets showed below the fringe. Any purse or wallet? No. Beneath a chair with busted caning lay a beige tank top. Spaghetti straps. And over the back of the chair hung a sheer, loose-knit, purple and blue scarf with sparkly sequins, a fun accessory, a frilly thing, not at all for warmth, but something to throw over your bare shoulders, and to slide, or be slid, off them.

She gathered up the clothes and the scarf. Back at the edge she leaned over and dropped them one by one as gently as she could, so they landed on the dock beside Grace, like anyone’s little pile of clothes on a table at the laundromat. One last time, she swept the flashlight around the loft—nothing left behind—then put it back in her pocket. She turned and backed down the ladder.

At the bottom, she put the flashlight on the dock, angling it so it lit up most of Grace’s body. She began with the tank top, sliding it over one arm and very carefully over Grace’s head, then easing the other arm through the strap. While not actively helpful, of course, Grace’s arms seemed oddly compliant, as though Ellen were dressing a half-asleep child. She rolled Grace slightly one way, then the other, so she could pull the top down and over the girl’s small, pale breasts, as Grace must have done herself when she’d prepared for her rendezvous with Jamie, probably with a shiver of excitement: That shy boy. A little gawky. But nice.

She lifted the girl’s head and loosely looped the scarf twice around her neck. Next she took Grace’s cut-off jeans and flip-flops and stepped into the boat. She sat on the front seat, facing forward, where Grace’s legs hung over the bow. They, like her arms, looked smooth and thin in the shadowy light. No unusual bumps or scars, though her toes seemed slightly swollen. Ellen pulled Grace’s legs closer together and slid the jeans over her feet, which were arched, with her toenails neatly painted pink. Tattooed in red, in the hollow below Grace’s right ankle, was the word Love.

Was that what happened here?

The cut-offs were tight as a second skin that took a few minutes for Ellen to shimmy up Grace’s legs, stretch over the black panties, and tug into place, to zip and snap. She fed the narrow belt through the loops and buckled it. She slipped Grace’s flip-flops onto her feet . . . and there she was, somewhat as she might have been not long before: a girl on an adventure, halting and hurrying, walking past the black windows of the general store, then down the winding lake road and into the cool, peaty night-smells of the forest, then out again and across the field with the tall, damp grasses tickling her legs, the boy’s car huddled behind some hemlocks, her scarf swaying and glimmering in the moonlight, her flip-flops snapping on her heels.

Cradling the girl’s head in the crook of her arm, Ellen half rolled, half slid Grace all the way off the dock and into the rowboat, until Grace’s head lay on a life jacket in the V of the bow. The girl’s eyes stared straight up. Lying there, she was like a girl in a pod, the ribs of the boat embracing her. Ellen took off her robe and spread it over Grace from her shoulders down, as if she might have been cold.

“Hold on,” Ellen whispered. “Here we go.” She untied the lines at the bow and the corners of the stern. Now they were floating free. She pushed off from the dock. Facing the stern, she sat on the middle seat, her back to Grace, as they drifted out of the boathouse. She turned off the flashlight. She stowed it under her seat. Everything else she’d do that night would be by the light of the moon.

The lake was like a sheet of tarnished silver, mottled, streaked, yet shining. No wind to speak of. No sound. The only scent: that clean smell of air on lake water, a smell that’s somehow wide. Ellen picked up the oars and fit them into the locks. Pulling her left oar and pushing the right, she turned the bow away from the boathouse and out toward the middle of the lake. In his zeal for mechanical precision, Jamie had cleaned and greased the pins of the oarlocks, so Ellen was able to row with a quiet rhythm, the blades leaving little whorls in the water along with the ripples behind the boat, where the moonlight wobbled on the surface. As if back in that place between sleep and waking, she seemed to know and not know where she was going. Out and out she went, while the shapes of the few cottages and boathouses dimmed, blended, and were swallowed up in the dark hills, and the light in her bedroom window got smaller and smaller, just a speck, like any one of the stars. Turning her head to look forward, she could see the hills on the other side of the lake getting closer and bigger, along with the mountain that descends gently, then precipitously near the water. Straight down it goes, a rock face for fifteen or twenty feet, ending at a curved beach, about a hundred yards long, that nearly forms a circle. Those cliffs seem chiseled out of the mountain, and together with the beach are called Artists’ Cove, a protected place where fishermen have sheltered in storms, where the occasional painter will set up an easel, and where boaters come to picnic on the sand or take in the view from the cliffs.

Keeping the bow pointed at the cove, Ellen rowed for what must have been twenty minutes, her shoulders and arms getting warm but not tired. Especially if the lake is quiet and still, you can lose yourself in that rhythm. Bending, reaching, pulling, lifting. The pulse pulls you along.

When she’d passed through the mouth of the cove, all the lake’s wide-openness disappeared, as if a curtain had come down behind her. Now she was in a nearly enclosed, isolated place, with the beach and those low cliffs all around. Here it seemed even quieter, the water smooth as glass. Ellen held the oars straight out, like wings, so she’d disturb the surface as little as possible as she coasted to the shore. She landed with a soft, shushing sound. She got out and pulled the boat onto the beach. In the time it’d taken to cross the lake, Grace seemed to have settled into the boat, as if she might have belonged there. It seemed a pity to move her, but Ellen did. Reaching over the gunwale, she took her robe off Grace, folded it, and put it on the middle seat. Then she leaned, reached in again, and as best she could, picked Grace up. Grace was not at all a heavy girl, yet Ellen could feel the whole sagging weight of her. How many times, with her arms under his neck and knees like this, had she carried Jamie as a little boy, a boy who, unlike this girl now, would eventually walk on his own. Stepping away from the boat, she almost lost her balance in the sand.

Now Ellen carried Grace across the beach to the bottom of the cliffs where here and there stones had fallen from above. Was this the right place? Yes, I think so. A few days before, she’d walked along the top of those cliffs where there’s a view of the cove from a dirt path with an eroded edge without a railing and only a small, rusted sign:

Danger de mort

Yes, this is the right place.

Kneeling, she lay Grace, curled on her side, on a patch of grass at the base of the cliffs. Grace looked less comfortable than she had in the boat, but there was nothing Ellen could do about it. Though she knew it would blow around when the breeze came up, she arranged the scarf so both ends fell over Grace’s shoulders, as she’d seen such scarves worn with a casual flair by girls at her school. Then she turned Grace’s head so she was looking out toward the mouth of the cove and beyond that toward the lake, the hills, and the gray-tinged sky where, in an hour or two when Ellen would be on her way home to New Jersey, the sun would light the girl’s face.

• •

Ellen stops talking. She is spent, and for a long moment there is quiet, except for the rhythmic clicking of Hannah’s knitting needles and a soft fufff, as a log in the woodstove crumples into coals. It is so strange. For all this time, Cyrus and Hannah have listened without a word, their eyes turned downward. As if by some silent understanding, they haven’t reacted at all. They’ve just let Ellen talk and talk. Now and then Hannah has pulled a length of yarn from her canvas bag, and maybe she’s tightened the blanket around her shoulders, or Cyrus has shifted in his chair. But as Ellen’s been speaking, she’s been unaware of any unusual sound or movement. A few times she’d paused in the midst of her story, certain that Hannah or Cyrus would say something, yet the silence had just deepened, become unbearable, until she’d filled it again with her words.

Cyrus’s leg has long since stopped jittering. There is the slow lift and fall of breathing. Outside the window, it is pitch dark. The dog sleeps. Nothing else is happening in the world.

Now the needles stop clicking, and Hannah lays her knitting in her lap. She takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes, which are red at their rims. She puts the glasses back on and raises her eyes to meet Ellen’s. Finally she speaks. Slowly, with a kind of seething calm, she says, “I should hate you. And right now, I believe I do.”

Cyrus sits up in his chair.

Ellen doesn’t say anything.

“That was our daughter’s body that you touched before we could, that you moved and left under those cliffs,” Hannah says.

“I know,” Ellen says, trying to keep her voice from trembling.

“Do you have any idea what that feels like for us?” Hannah waits for an answer.

“No,” Ellen says. “I can only imagine.”

“Well, there’s all the difference in the world between imagining and happening,” Cyrus says bitterly. “This happened.”

“Yes,” Ellen says. “I did it.”

Then Ellen is about to say that Jamie, though not without blame, is innocent of all she is guilty of, when Hannah takes in a breath that makes Ellen pause. Hannah’s shoulders lift, then fall. In a different voice, neither harsh nor gentle, she says, “We already know.”

For a moment nobody says anything, and Ellen feels a numbness come to her lips. “What do you mean?”

“I mean we know. We already know most of what happened and how it happened. We know how Grace died. We’ve known for a little while now.”

Ellen feels her mouth half open and close again. She looks from Hannah’s face to Cyrus’s, and he nods as if to say yes.

Then Cyrus and Hannah look at one another. “Tell her,” Hannah says.

“He came here. Two days ago,” Cyrus says evenly. “Your son. James.”

“Jamie?”

“He called himself James. A thin, blond boy in a green car.”

The room, which already feels cramped, closes in. At once, Ellen wants to flee and stay put. How could this be? Jamie was supposed to be in . . . “What did he say?”

“I think he told us all he knew,” Hannah says. “He stood right here and told us. About him and Grace in the boathouse loft. About Grace falling over the edge. About how he’d climbed a tree and came in your bedroom window. About how the two of you ran back to the boathouse, and how Grace didn’t move when you turned her over. He told us everything—except for what you did after you made him go.”

Hannah pauses, unable to restrain her disgust. “And Cy and me, we figured out what you did. That you rowed Grace over to Artist’s Cove and left her there, where Dave Judway saw her when he was fishing that morning. The police are ‘investigating,’ but of course they’ll say she’d slipped and fallen from the cliff. It’s a reasonable conclusion. It’s happened before. Just last year to a kid from Potton.”

“So did you go to the police and tell them the truth?” Ellen asks.

“No. Your boy said he’d do that. He said he’d tell them everything, just like he told us.”

My God . . .

“But we told him not to go,” Hannah continues. “We made him promise not to. We told him we’d go to the police ourselves. We wanted to do that. We meant to do that . . .”

There’s another moment of silence.

“Then I’ll go to the police,” Ellen says. “That’s what I’ve come here to do.”

“No,” Hannah says.

“I don’t understand.”

Hannah touches her outstretched fingers together—thumb to thumb, pinky to pinky—as if she’s making the frame of a tiny house or a tent. Her voice is steady. “What good would it do to tell the police? How would that change anything? How would that bring back Grace? How would that help me? Or Cy? Or your broken-hearted boy who’s trying to make a start on things? I wish I could blame him, but I can’t. Not any more than I can blame Grace.”

With her pale eyes, she’s been looking at Ellen from a place that Ellen never wants to know, yet Ellen doesn’t avert her gaze from Hannah.

“So let this be,” Hannah continues at last. “I’m not saying let it go or forget it. I’m just saying let this be. Now go home. Go!”

Hannah picks up her knitting. She starts rocking, slowly and steadily, her chair faintly creaking on the floorboards. Ellen stands. She has an urge to touch Hannah, her veiny wrist or her blanketed shoulder, as if with a touch she might make something, anything, a tiny bit better. But Hannah seems to know this and moves her shoulder slightly away—nothing can make anything better. Nor can anything more be said. All that can happen here has happened, so Ellen walks toward the door with Cyrus following, down the hall, past the dog that looks at her but doesn’t move on its mat. Cyrus lifts the latch, and from the open doorway, Ellen can see the boxy shape of her car in the light from the porch, while beyond it the Canadian night seems vast, cool, and silent. No moon or stars. No hint of light along the horizon. No horizon at all. Just that deep, dark blanket of lonesomeness.

“Keep your eyes on the sides of the road,” Cyrus says. “The deer, they could still be coming up from the stream.”

“Thank you,” Ellen says. For a few seconds they stand there, not knowing how to end whatever has just occurred. Then they nod, like passersby who vaguely recognize one another, and Ellen turns toward her car.

On the rutted dirt road to the general store, there are no other cars and just a few on the winding asphalt that takes her to customs, where another man in a uniform shines his flashlight and waves Ellen back into the United States. To keep herself awake, she turns on the heat and leaves her windows half-way open, though the night smells and sounds of Vermont come to her as if dulled and muffled by layers of cotton. Southbound on the Northway, the white dashes between the lanes are mesmerizing but hold Ellen in a groove. The miles blur by. Approaching Albany around 1:00 a.m., she thinks of veering west toward the Thruway, where she could get to Syracuse and Jamie in three hours, certainly by dawn. . . .

And suddenly Ellen is weeping like she never has before, in deep, heaving sobs, unaccompanied by any thought or word, as she goes through the EZ-Pass and takes the split to the right and around the jug handle that keeps her heading south. Soon she pulls into the breakdown lane, stops, and weeps until she is dry, at the bottom of her weeping, at the bottom of everything it seems, where there is just her, all hard and alone, like a stone in a bucket. She pulls back on the highway and keeps driving.

Five hours later, she steps into her apartment where nothing has changed since she’d left. In the ceramic bowl, the bananas are still yellow. There’s the flowering begonia on the windowsill. There’s the butter knife and, with crumbs still on it, the small plate where she’d left it yesterday morning in the sink. Yet it all seems peculiar, recognizable but different, like a period room in a museum, like some place she’d sealed up long ago and now has reopened.

Down the hall, she passes Jamie’s bedroom without looking in. In her own bedroom, she changes her clothes, puts on a peach-colored shirt, a skirt, and her low-heeled pumps. Back in the kitchen, she eats a bowl of granola. At 7:20 she collects her sweater, keys, and tote bag with her folders, and goes out to her car that is still warm inside. She drives out of her neighborhood, through some woods, out of town, past the Shop Rite, and a half hour later into those graceful hills with their split-rail fences and groomed fields, until she reaches the granite building with a porte-cochre that was once the main house of an old estate and now is her school.

With her bag of folders, she goes in and talks with the staff and other teachers in the office. Another start of another school year. At her mailbox, she picks up the Monday announcements and walks down the hall, her back and shoulders straight and square, her heels tapping on the hardwood floor amidst the familiar chatter, laughter, swinging backpacks, and slamming lockers.

As always, the bell rings at exactly 8:15. More or less in single file, the girls line up along the wall by her homeroom. They know the rules. They quiet down. Now Ellen pulls open the door, and trying to gauge what she sees in their wide open or averted eyes—and in the ways they’ve brushed their hair, or hold their shoulders, or wear their skirts or skinny jeans—she asks her girls to come in.