The second the truck stopped moving, Dylan threw open his door. Gravel-sized pebbles crunched beneath his sneakers. He reached up toward the sky, stretching, a loud yawn pouring out of his mouth. The sound echoed throughout the open space.
Natalie winced. “Can’t you yawn quietly?” She shut off the engine and climbed out. It felt amazing to stretch her legs. The hour long drive had definitely taken its toll. She glanced up at the sky. If she hurried, she could catch a few rays of sun down at the beach. By the time her father finished making dinner, she could have the base of her base tan going. She reached for her suitcase.
“Leave those there for now,” her father said, pulling a ring of keys from his belt loop. He went through them, selected one, and ambled toward the trailer.
Ignoring him, she yanked her suitcase out of the pickup bed. Dropping it to the side, she reached for his next. If she wasn’t careful, she surmised, she could end up with a hernia. They seemed to run in her family. As she began tugging on it, she felt her father’s hand clamp gently around her arm.
“I said, leave ‘em there.” He tugged her toward the trailer.
“What are you doing, you psycho?” She yanked her arm away.
He pointed to the deck. “Look at this,” he said, opening the door and entering the screen room. He swept his foot in an arc through leaves and other debris. “You’ve got to clean this up.”
She snorted. “Me? I think you can handle a broom.” She turned toward where she had left her suitcase.
“I can’t, Nat. I’m exhausted. I’m supposed to rest.” He put a hand on the arm of a deck chair, stooping a little.
Pressing her lips together, she entered the screen room, ducking under a spider web. With a grimace, she grabbed the broom from the corner. Sweeping would only take her a few minutes. “Then I’m going down to the beach,” she told him, pushing a pile of dirt toward the leaves.
She wondered how so much stuff had gotten into the screen room. Her father had built the deck himself, adding screening to the lattice on the bottom specifically so that the flooring stayed clean during the off season. As she swept, she glanced around for a hole or tear.
From his seat, her father hummed, watching her.
“Is this up to your standards?” she asked, pointing to her progress. A clean path ran from the door to where she stood, on the other side of the deck.
Squatting, she pointed to a dark corner. “Looks like there’s a hole here,” she said. Her eyes ran along the bottom of the lattice. A gap gaped between the wood and the ground. Frowning, she scooted closer. Tiny claw marks were imprinted into the dirt outside. “Dad,” she said, motioning him over.
The chair creaked as he got up. A moment later, he joined her. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “Looks like there’s a fox nest under the deck.”
Wrinkling her nose, she looked at him. “How can you tell?”
He pointed into the garden in front of them. Two small creatures with orange fur and bushy tails chased each other in the leafy fronds.
“It’s okay,” Dylan said, lowering his voice. “They won’t hurt you. As long as we don’t mess with the babies, mama won’t bother us.” He stood slowly, his knees stiff. “Finish up here,” he said, wobbling back to his chair.
Clutching the broom, she jerked her chin toward the foxes. “Aren’t you supposed to call animal control or something?”
“For what?” He waved a hand at her. “We’re in their backyard.” Pointing to the deck floor, he said, “You missed a spot.”
She rolled her eyes, but resumed sweeping.
By the time she finished, the sun had sunk below the treeline. Deep shadows stretched across the campsite. Even though the sun wouldn’t go down fully for another forty-five minutes or so, the trees at the top of the hill blocked it out after a certain time of day. Below, on the beach, it would still be bright and warm.
Shivering a little, she replaced the broom. “All set,” she said, wiping her hands on her jeans. “I’m gonna go down to the beach for a bit. Can you handle dinner?”
Her father’s eyes fluttered open. Yawning, he shook his head. “You’ve got to rake the leaves out front,” he said.
“Rake?” she repeated. Small piles of leaves were everywhere, leftover from the winter. It looked as if someone had emptied a bag of them, scattering them all over. “Can’t it wait ’til tomorrow?”
“It’s going to rain tomorrow,” he said. “If they get wet, we’ll get those little gnats. They’re a pain in the ass.”
“Dad,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “It’s getting late. I drove for an hour plus, then swept this whole deck for you. What more do you want?”
“I want,” he said, his voice growing stern, “you to rake the leaves so we don’t have to deal with the gnats after the rain.”
Turning red, she flung her hands up into the air. “You can’t treat me like a little kid!”
“I could just do it myself, then,” he said.
She noted his pale complexion, the way his hands shook. “No,” she said, sighing. “I’ll do it.” With another glance up at the sky, she held her hand out for the shed key. At least, out in the yard, she wouldn’t have to deal with her father watching her every move.
The shed smelled like kerosene, but it was otherwise clean. Beach chairs lined the walls in neat stacks. Rope hung from hooks. A couple fishing poles leaned against a metal garbage can full of deflated swimming floats. She inhaled. For some reason, she had always loved the scent of kerosene. It reminded her of late nights on the deck, a fire flowing out in the keystone pit. Her parents had played cards while she watched. Sometimes, her father let her join them, and they played Rummy 5000. She had been good at it, she remembered—as long as she had his help.
Blinking away the memories, she grabbed a rake from the back of the shed and went back outside.
Raking in flip flops proved to be annoying at best. The tines kept getting caught on her toes, and sometimes leaves brushed against her skin. When she finished, her feet were caked in dirt. Bits of leaves clung to her clothing. She didn’t even want to see her hair. Five neat bags sat near the dirt road. One of the maintenance workers would pick them up in the morning, according to Dylan. She had made good time, but not good enough. The sun had begun to sink beneath the horizon.
She clomped onto the deck, feeling like a zombie risen out of its grave. Her father opened his mouth, but she held up a hand. “I’m going to take a shower now,” she said, tossing him the shed key. He started to say something, but she slashed her open palm through the air, cutting him off. “Nope, don’t wanna hear it.”
Inside of the trailer, she found towels and a wash cloth. Kicking off her trashed flip flops, she stepped into the tiny bathroom. To use the toilet, she would almost have to put her feet in the shower. Rolling her eyes, she reached for the knob inside of the shower. She turned it on. Nothing happened. She kept turning it. Only a squeaking sound poured from its metal faucet.
“Dad,” she called.
Floorboards squeaked as he entered the trailer. “Yeah?” He poked his head into the bathroom. “Oh. I tried to tell you. The water’s still off. You have to turn it on.”
“I have to what?” She turned toward him, hands on her hips. “Have you done anything to open this season?”
He shrugged. “I haven’t been feeling good,” he said. “Come on, I’ll teach you how.”
She turned the faucet off. “Or I could just take one in the adult lounge,” she said, brushing past him. She stomped through the screen room. Clamping her fingers around the handle of her suitcase, she headed toward the recreation hall.
“Nat,” her father called.
Her suitcase caught on a rock. Its wheels bit into her already blistered heels. “What?” she howled.
“When you get back, throw some burgers on the grill.” He stood in the doorway to the screen room, leaning against the frame.
She scowled. “Do it yourself.” She jerked her suitcase over the stone. Nothing was going as planned. She thought of New York, and Benjamin’s hot tub. Her job had paid enough, if she could just avoid putting things on her Victoria’s Secret credit card. She should have tried harder.
“And,” she grumbled out loud as she dragged her suitcase through a patch of grass, “I should have never come home.”
* * *
Beads of water dripped down her back. A large, dark wet spot marked one side of her suitcase. Her feet were already dirty in her ruined flip flops. She felt like a new person, though. Walking back to the campsite, she hummed. Everything would be fine, she told herself. She just needed to have more patience.
Rolling back into the site, she waved to her father. He sat in his chair reading a newspaper.
“Better?” he asked, putting the paper aside.
She nodded. Feet crunching over the little stones, she walked toward the screen room. As she stepped up onto the deck, he jerked a thumb toward the shed.
“Do me one more favor,” he said, “and set up my hammock.”
She released her suitcase. It fell over, wet spot up. “One more favor?” She slammed her fist against the door frame. “I’m starving, Dad.”
“So set up the hammock and then throw a couple burgers on. Or better yet,” he said, “throw them on now. By the time you finish, they’ll be ready.”
“Why can’t you do it?” She stooped to pick up the suitcase. With a sigh, she brought it into the trailer. “It’s been a long day,” she called through the open door. “Can’t it wait?”
“I need to relax,” he said. “I can go lay on it in the morning. Think about how nice it’d be.”
Natalie scowled. “If I do this one last thing for you, will you quit bugging me?”
He nodded. “Sure.” Then, stroking his stubbled chin, he said, “Wait, we have to pick up my prescriptions in the morning.”
She wondered whether she should kill him, or herself. “You’re a maniac,” she told him. “Why couldn’t you say something before we left Waterbury? Why do you have to be so difficult?”
Sputtering, he got up from his chair. “You’re being difficult. I had a heart attack, Natalie. It’s nothing to be taken lightly.” He joined her in the trailer.
“You keep using that as an excuse,” she said. Crossing her arms, she stuck out her chin at him. “I’m going home in the morning—to New York.”
“You are?” He cocked his head at her, an eyebrow raised. “I’m not stupid, Natalie. You can’t go back.”
Her heart caught in her chest. “What do you mean?”
“I know all about your financial troubles,” her father said. “You were on the verge of losing your apartment, if you haven’t already been evicted.” He reached out for her hand. “Come on, Nat. Let’s help each other out, huh?”
She pulled away from him, out of reach. “How do you know?” Her heart thudded in her chest. There was no way he could possibly know. He had to be bluffing. She should have played it cool, she surmised with a twinge. He had probably been digging, and her blurt-out told him for sure. She wanted to smack herself.
“Your mother told me,” he said, as if she should have known.
She blinked at him. It had been years since her parents spoke to each other. When her mother remarried, it was up to Natalie to call her father to schedule their weekly visitation. Her mother hated her father, and didn’t miss a single opportunity to tell her. Natalie couldn’t blame her. If Benjamin or any other man ever cheated on her, she would castrate him. “Since when do you two talk to each other?” she asked, gripping the edge of the dinette.
“Nat,” he said, his voice softening, “we’re always going to talk to each other.” He sat down on the couch, which would be her bed for as long as she stayed. “How else can I get updates? You don’t talk to me.” He shrugged, palms up.
“I’m talking to you right now,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Arguing with me, more like.” He gave her a smug grin.
“You’re impossible,” she said. Shoving her suitcase underneath the dinette, she felt her nerves start to buckle. She needed to get away from her father before she actually did kill him. Straightening, she moved toward the deck. “I’m going for a walk,” she announced. Without waiting for him to respond, she stormed out of the trailer, through the screen room, and back outside.
The temperature was starting to drop. In the dying daylight, she could just make out the dirt road. Her father’s site sat at the beginning of Cedar Circle. If she continued down the road, she would be at the top of Rocky Mountain—an unpaved treacherous hill that led directly down to the beach. In the waning light, though, she would probably break her neck. Instead, she would have to go down Cedar Circle, cut across Laurel Lane, and down Lake Drive.
She wished she had brought her headphones. It wasn’t a long walk, but it was definitely longer than going down Rocky Mountain. She would rather take the trip than sit at the site with her father, though.
Natalie set out, her hands still clenched into fists. She wondered if she would be better off dealing with Edward, her stepfather. At least he wouldn’t make her work all day and then expect her to make dinner. Her father was turning out to be a misogynist, she surmised with a twist of her lip. No wonder her mother had left him.
A few minutes later, she reached Beach View Drive. A group of people sat on the gazebo. A fire burned on one of the beach-front sites. Two children chased each other while their parents watched the sun set, arm in arm. Pink streaks stretched across the sky. On any other night, she might stop and watch, too. She continued past the beach, though. Wishing she had a flashlight, she walked through the beach parking lot—which was really just a large dirt semicircle—and ducked through leafy branches.
Squinting, she could just make out the path. She took her time, picking her way over roots and jutting rocks. She could walk the path in the dark or blindfolded. Ever since her parents started camping at Laurel Lock, she had wandered the area just outside of the campground. Technically, it was state property. Her mother hated when she slipped away and went into Hopemead, but Natalie thought of it as her sanctuary. On the path, she always found something new. There was a tiny stream. A crumbling stone wall ran almost parallel to the trail. Once, she had found a trio of pipes that led nowhere. When she told her father about them, he said they had probably once belonged to a house. There was no other sign of a house, though. She had liked to pretend that they were put there by aliens or maybe Native Americans. Her favorite part of Hopemead, though, was the cave.
Ducking under one fallen tree and stepping over another, she paused. The cave was still there. It was actually an old root cellar—or at least, that was what her father called it. Rumor had it that it was connected to tunnels that ran underground, or that it had been built by Native Americans. Whatever it had originally been, it had become a party spot. If she sat on the rock just outside of its entrance, though, she had a perfect view of the cove that opened up into the lake, and the sunset.
A fire pit sat, cold, just above the small beach. She kicked off her flip flops and padded onto the sandy, pebbles. Unlike the campground beach, the cave beach was completely natural. Small waves lapped quietly at the shore. The sound of the water soothed her soul, and brought her blood pressure down. At the cave, things really were okay.
The remaining light from the sun cast pink shadows on the sand. She crouched near the shore and watched as a boat sailed toward the campground docks. What she needed, she mused, was a job. It would get her away from her father for a while every day, and would help her move into her own place. At the very least, it would help her pay her bills. Heat flushed her cheeks. She couldn’t believe her mother had blabbed her business to her father, of all people. She made a mental note to never tell her mother anything, ever again.
Pulling her phone from her back pocket, she scrolled through her contacts. The last time she talked to her high school best friend, Violet had her own bar in Oakdale. It was just a dive bar, but it would have to do. She pressed the phone to her ear and waited, holding her breath.
“Nat-a-tat!” Violet squealed. “Haven’t heard from you in thirty-ish. Where have you been?” Loud music and voices drowned her out.
“Banging a CEO,” Natalie said, falling into their old rhythm.
“Is he cute?” Violet asked.
Natalie could practically hear the laughter in her voice. “Was,” she said.
“Old news,” Violet said, a pout lacing her words. “Tell me something that happened within the hour.”
“Okay,” Natalie said, scooting back until she sat on a bumpy rock. “My father conned me into leaving New York to take care of him.”
Violet snorted. “You willingly left New York? I don’t buy it. Spill.” A glass shattered. Men laughed. Gradually, the noise in the background ceased as Violet moved into her office.
Natalie watched as the sun dipped below the lake. In a few more minutes, she would be walking back to the campsite in pitch darkness. She needed to hurry up. “Listen, Vie,” she said. “I need a job, pronto. Tell me you need a bartender.”
“You’re in luck, Lie,” her best friend said. “I just had someone quit on me. We’re super shorthanded. If you can get here, you can start tonight.”
Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.
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