Red is supposed to be a cheerful color: bright, bold, attention-getting. It’s what you’d choose for an invitation to a party, not as a threat. Maureen looks at it again and the thought resurfaces: it’s the color of blood. It’s what she thought the first time she saw the envelope three days ago when it arrived in her mail. An invitation to this home on the Oregon coast, the same invitation that everyone in her family received. Don’t tell anyone you’re coming. In one night, you’ll find out what happened to Meg. Meg.
Her daughter only allowed certain people to call her that.
The letter is single-spaced and typed, with instructions to a remote house with an anonymous host. Surely most people wouldn’t travel somewhere on the invitation of a stranger, but the Chisholms aren’t your typical family and they have already been through so much. They’re intrigued by what they might learn, except for Maureen.
This invite is enough to push her over the edge.
And now she’s staring at one.
At the window, her eyes track to the cliff and the thousand-foot plunge that drops to jagged rocks and raging foam. Beyond that, the majestic Pacific Ocean spreads out before her in an undulating mass of whitecaps and indigo waves. The place where the ocean meets the sky is indistinguishable: at the horizon, the lines blur, the dark water rising to blackening clouds. A storm is coming, and Maureen squeezes her hands, the electricity pulsing through her.
Her eyes lift to a single bird dipping in the wind. Its flight is so graceful, the bird seemingly unaware that it might be the only one out there, its friends taking cover somewhere else. She watches the gull’s outstretched wings, the bird so unencumbered and free that she longs to be it. She longs to be anywhere but here. Because in this house, the walls are closing in. Once the storm hits, they won’t be going anywhere.
Maureen’s heart lifts, then aches as she glances at Sam, who moves through the kitchen marveling at what she sees. She reminds herself she is here to protect her, that her youngest daughter begged them to follow through with the letter. This is a trap,
Maureen thinks. Or a con.
Cal brought them here—her oldest daughter’s high school boyfriend from ten years ago. He used to call her Meg too. Now that he’s out of prison, he has something new he wants to say.
She wants to seal his mouth shut. If she could, she would drop him at the bottom of the ocean.
When Sam saw the invitation, she insisted they make the trip. Maureen did her best to dissuade her, but Sam pushed back, and Maureen knew she had no choice. There was no way in hell she would let her youngest travel to this house alone. If her middle child, Alice, arrives, she will protect her too.
But there’s no telling when she will show up since Alice doesn’t answer their phone calls much anymore.
But Sam is different. She’s bolder, and despite everything that has happened, she’s far too hopeful. Maureen thinks her youngest, at twenty-four, would be frightened, that she would never want to see Cal again, especially after what she said in a courtroom helped send him to prison. But Sam is determined. She’s always been determined. And so is Maureen.
She jams the envelope inside her pocket and pushes the corner down with her thumb. She keeps the invitation hidden, wondering if her daughter brought her own copy.
Sam is opening kitchen cabinets and calling out about the contents: an inventory of soup and bread, flour and sugar, and a package of cookies, as if they’re on vacation. She holds up a bag of coffee and grins, but something creeps at the back of Maureen’s neck.
“What do you mean there’s food?”
She finds cans of soup like her daughter said, at least six, along with a jar of pasta sauce. In the fridge, a gallon of milk, fat-free and unopened with the expiration set for a week from now. In the drawer, an assortment of cheeses and deli meat, everything in its original wrapping, waiting for them.
“What is this?” she asks.
Sam shrugs. “Maybe the owner left it for us? Or the person who stayed before didn’t eat everything?”
Maureen eyes the shelves, but nothing is open or half-used. All the seals are intact, the food is new, the refrigerator wiped clean. On the counter is a bowl of fruit topped with bananas, Sam’s favorite, along with shiny green Granny Smiths. Someone has peeled the labels off each one.
When the girls were young, Paul would carve apples for their daughters, the green ones they loved best, and the peels would come off in long continuous strips, the girls watching wide-eyed, convinced he possessed a magical gift. When Cal tried to impress Meg with the same trick, the knife slipped, and he sliced open his hand.
Maureen shuts the refrigerator door and the shelves rattle inside, condiments knocking against a jar of strawberry preserves. Cal
—is this his doing? Would he be this prepared and stock food for them?
She didn’t think to pack groceries but threw in two flasks of whiskey at the last minute, along with some clothes—one set, because as soon as it’s morning, they’re getting the hell out of here.
But maybe they should be grateful for the provisions. She’s not sure if she can stomach anything herself, and the idea roils in her stomach, but the rest of the group might want something later. The closest grocery store is miles away, and after turning off the main road, she doesn’t recall seeing any restaurants.
A gust of wind shudders the windows and Maureen cuts her eyes to the left, her shoulders rising.
The food, this beautiful house: it’s as if Cal wants them to enjoy their weekend. He’s taking care of every detail. But nothing about tonight will be pleasant, not with the memories that will be dredged up, and not with the secrets that Cal, for some God-unknown reason, has waited ten years to share. After all this time, he’s asking to see them face-to-face. And the very idea, the fact that they’ve complied, sets a fire inside her. When she sees him, she knows what she must do.
Her daughter, Meg, was seventeen when she died, her body found in a creek, her black hair tangled among the reeds. The gash to her head hurt her but didn’t kill her, and she drowned when she slipped beneath the water. A group of hungover teenagers said they didn’t see anything, didn’t know anything, except for one person who stepped forward later: Samantha.
Sam shouldn’t have been at that party. Only a high school freshman, she should have been home, but she crept out the window, a flashlight in hand. When Maureen asked if she went to the family cabin instead, only a few miles away from the bonfire, she said no, and Alice reminded her that none of the sisters had a key. Maureen checked the cabin weeks later, and the bed and chairs had been moved.
There’s a link to that place, Maureen knows. She can feel it. The truth scratching beneath the surface.
It was still morning when the police showed up, their bodies stiffening, broad shoulders spotted through the glass oval in their door, and Maureen knew. She just knew. The way a mother feels it in her bones that something isn’t right, that something happened to one of her children.
She fell to the ground and slammed into the doorsill, the metal cutting into her knees and splitting her skin. Her husband lifted her to her feet and they huddled together, the officers speaking, their words tumbling all over her, muffled and nonsensical, as if they’d been plunged underwater. Underwater
. . . like creek water against her ears.
Meghan’s friends said they woke when they heard someone screaming. By then, Sam had already snuck back home, Alice too. The girls thought their big sister was fast asleep.
She and Paul went to identify Meghan’s body, and the sight of their daughter’s pale blue lips and lifeless face pierced Maureen’s chest with a pain she didn’t know existed, that she didn’t know was possible—it shouldn’t have been possible. You’re not supposed to lose your child. Meghan lay motionless, a thin cotton sheet pulled to her shoulders. She was still beautiful with that one small freckle beside her nose.
She wanted to climb on that table and lie beside her daughter, crumple over her and protect her, as if that would be enough, wanting so badly for that to be enough, as if it weren’t too late already. She stroked Meghan’s hair and ran her hand across her brow, her daughter’s skin cold to the touch.
She hummed her a lullaby, something she hadn’t done since the girls were young, and yet here it was, the instinct to protect, so immediate, so primal, the vibrations of “Cradle Song” thick and guttural in her throat. She was simply a mom hushing her child to sleep.