The snow in the headlights reminds Trace of Space Invaders. Rick’s dad had owned one of the old arcade cabinets, restored to good working order and kept in the living room; they were allowed to play it as long as they didn’t mash the buttons too hard or kick the machine when they lost. Trace wonders how many hours they wasted on that game, from grade school when they first became friends to whenever Trace was last in Rick’s dad’s house, which would have been twelve or thirteen years ago, after college but before his own folks moved to Florida. If you gathered up all that time, if you could somehow un-spend it, how much of it would there be? Though if you’re going to start asking that kind of question, why stop—or for that matter start—with some old game? They hadn’t even been the kind of boys who were into video games, mostly they hung out and did whatever. It was only that one, its hypnotic monotony and vital crudeness, plus the fact that it was always already there, lit up and cycling through its demo. Trace remembers the bulky cabinet and the gaudy artwork adorning it as much as he does the game itself: the black creature in silhouette striding forward across the craters and dunes of the base moon, white star pocks on the iris blue of outer space. The joystick’s bulb and the shooter-button’s concave dip. Nowadays you could probably download the game for a couple of bucks: three clicks and four minutes later it’s in your pocket, in your hand. Trace can’t remember now, if he ever knew, whether the bug-like sprites shuffling left and right were the actual aliens or their ships.
When Rick’s father died, and the mountain house became Rick’s officially, he’d talked about bringing the game out here, setting it up in the living room or the den. Instead he sold it and used the money to buy a ring for Sharon, who in time came to throw it into the lake that the house sits above. They were out kayaking and she laid her oar across her thighs and worked the ring off her finger. She set it on her cocked thumb like it was a coin she meant to flip. The ring winked up into the hot blue day and then it winked back lakeward. The way Rick tells it, he watched her through smudged polarized sunglasses that were like squinting through ginger ale, and knew that he’d been found out. The ring plurped into the water and that was that.
Trace and Rick have spent many New Year’s Eves here at the mountain house, often enough that it feels right to say that they do this every year, though that hasn’t been true for years. When they can, they’ll come up for a week, friends and girlfriends in tow (wife, when there was a wife) or else just the two of them in the winter or the summer. Trace lives in Pittsburgh, but flew to New Hampshire from O’Hare. Something came up at the Chicago office and he had to change his plans and go, deciding, at the last minute, to stay for the little New Year’s party management threw. This decision was made largely on account of a woman named Monica Tottenham, who danced with him at the party which they held at the office, and even kissed him at midnight, but ultimately would not be persuaded into coming back to his hotel with him; not even for what he promised would be nothing more than a last drink in the lounge.
He had a last drink in the lounge alone, a bitter floral digestif he ordered by accident, under the misimpression that it was a kind of scotch. It arrived in what looked like a cut-glass eggcup, a little chalice of tar, and he sat there and drank it because it had cost sixteen dollars and this was his life. “This is my life,” he said, loudly, determined to hear himself over the aggregate squawk of the revelers. An older man with a port-wine stain on his forehead and an untucked white shirt beneath a robin’s-egg blazer sat down next to Trace and hit on him while he drank. This inspired a sudden and unlikely solidarity with Monica Tottenham. Yes, from the unique vantage of this bar stool, his mouth a licorice slick and this old man in his airspace, he could imagine being aligned with her and against himself. His phone buzzed in his pocket. It was Monica Tottenham, apparently hiding in her bedroom closet, wearing a lacy blue bra, one cup of which she’d pulled aside. Her other hand was holding the phone. She stood in front of a row of gray suits, presumably belonging to the sick husband who, she’d said, she had to get home to look after. Trace had taken this for an exit line, but here were the suits and here was Monica Tottenham, asking if he’d be back to Chicago in the spring. He had been wrong to turn on himself, and that was comforting, though it came at the cost of his revelation. He had thought himself arrived at some venue of essential understanding about women, or this woman, or himself, or the way that people were, but it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true.
The drunk man with the port-wine stain saw what Trace was looking at on his phone. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, dismissively, then got up and wove through the lobby, toward the revolving door, headed outside for a cigarette, Trace figured—or maybe this wasn’t his hotel.
This year Rick has brought his new girlfriend and her sister to the mountain house for New Year’s. He and Trace are staying until the 10th, and the girls will stay some but probably not all of that time; they drove up separately, in their own car, and will see how the week goes, how they feel. Rick drove the hour to Manchester to pick up Trace. The flight was delayed for weather and that’s why they’re driving home through the snow in the dark, instead of in time to watch the sun set over the frozen lake, as Trace had hoped to do. Well, there’s always tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and so on for a week. The headlights find the house, white and all lit up inside, as Rick eases the car around the last curve and into the drive.
“Hi, I’m Joy,” Rick’s girlfriend says to Trace when she greets them at the door. She gives him a hug, her cheek hot against his. She smells like ChapStick and gin. He puckers his lips into the down by her ear, but by the time he makes the kiss noise she’s taken a step back. She’s wearing green velveteen pants and a wraparound gray cape with arm holes.
“How’s things on the home front?” Rick asks her, unlacing his boots.
“Gin and tonic,” Joy says. “Sissy was going to make a cake but she got drunk and had to nap on the couch. But she already made the chocolate icing. She said to wake her up whenever.”
“There is no whenever,” Rick says. “I mean, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Let me show you your room,” Joy says to Trace.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rick says. “Trace has been coming here longer than you have. He lost his cherry on that couch to Krista Daulerio when we were fifteen and you were still playing with dolls.”
“Don’t be gross,” Joy says. “I’m offering hospitality. I mean, am I the lady of the house or what?” Rick is giving this question more consideration than it would seem to warrant. Trace stands there in his soaked-through loafers watching his oldest friend in his unlaced boots do some kind of secret math. It is good to see Rick, he thinks. It is good to get away.
“The lady of the house could make some drinks and we’d be grateful,” Rick says, finally.
“That’s the first thing I said,” Joy says. “I mean, wasn’t that the very first thing?”
Dinner is some kind of chicken dish where the rice cooks in the same pot as the meat. “Great,” Trace says, through a mouthful. “I was really starving. There’s no such thing as food at the airport, I mean, holy hell.” There’s more meat on his fork and he’s holding it over the plate, ready for the next bite as soon as he swallows what’s in his mouth now. He loves coming to the mountain house. It’s probably his favorite place to be in the whole world.
“Sissy made dinner,” Joy says proudly. In the living room, just glimpse-able from where Trace is sitting, is a girl in blue-with-a-white-stripe Adidas track pants and a gray sweatshirt with the hood up, stretched out on the brown couch, her face turned toward the cushions. Krista Daulerio, Trace thinks, but only because Rick mentioned her. The vertiginous thrill of initiation into shared ache and secret heat. Krista is a half-conjured ghost he can almost imagine hovering above the sleeping sister, this sister named Sissy, whom none of them have woken. Krista had a lisp and the blackest hair. She had a snap-button wallet with a wavy sunburst stamped into the leather. She kept it clipped to her belt loop with a gunmetal chain.
“So you and Rick grew up together,” Joy says.
“Sure did. Our birthdays are two weeks apart and we used to have a double party.”
“Left to his own devices,” Rick says, “my dad would have stuck a candle in a cupcake and been done with it. So I was very grateful, as a kid. But after a certain age, well, it got to be a bit much.”
“And how old are we?” Trace asks Joy. He knocks back his gin and tonic, swallows. “We meaning you, of course.”
“Twenty-nine” she says.
“Hey, that’s the right side of thirty,” Trace says. “You just stay over there on the right side if you can.”
“Tell Sissy,” Joy says. “She’s the right side of twenty-five. She puts all of us to shame.”
“Every woman needs some other woman to be jealous of,” Rick says. “They should add that to the Bible, if it isn’t there already.”
“That’s terrible,” Joy says. “You’re terrible.”
“I’ve never met Sissy,” Trace says. “She has slept through the entire time I’ve known her.”
“You’ll meet her,” Rick says.
“She was a surprise,” Joy says. “A real shocker for my mom and Bill.”
“Half-sister?” Trace says. “I mean unless you call your father Bill.”
“Men should mostly always be called by their names,” Joy says. “It’s easier that way. But as far as her being my half-sister, yeah.”
After dinner Rick invites Trace to join him on the back deck for a cigarette. Neither of them smokes anymore, but there’s something about being here. In bygone days it was Marlboro Reds and they’d split a carton. Now it’s Camel Lights and they won’t make it through this pack. They’re wearing their jackets unzipped, and are hatless. There’s snow in their lashes, on their shoulders, and in Trace’s beard, which, to his surprise—he’s never grown a beard before—has patches of white on both sides, low on each cheek near the jowl, symmetrical as eyes.
The lake is invisible but they can sense it, an immensity close below them in the night, a gaping mouth packed with ice. In Trace’s mind, the lake is neither quite an object nor a place. It is something he might describe as “awake” before he would describe it as “alive,” though he recognizes this is a false choice, the latter being a condition of the former, and neither applicable to the lake.
Rick is fiddling with the button on the breast pocket of the flannel shirt he’s wearing under his open coat. He took his gloves off to work the lighter and then left them off, so now his fingers are clumsy with cold.
“Here, already,” Trace says, and slips off his own gloves. He works the button on Rick’s shirt quickly, while his fingers are nimble and warm. He reaches into his friend’s pocket and is alarmed by the way the fabric hugs the teacup curve of Rick’s breast. At the bottom of the pocket is something cold and round.
“But how?” Trace says as he lays the ring down carefully in the flat of Rick’s open palm.
“I dove,” Rick says. “All last summer. Got myself certified and bought all the gear—tank and wet suit, flippers and a handheld spotlight. I dove and dove, combed the bottom, and still it was dumb luck or God’s own grace I found it. I can’t tell the difference. The spotlight caught the diamond, which is the only way it could have happened. If it had sunk in the mud I’d have been SOL, and after two years why wouldn’t it have sunk? This was a one in a billion thing we’re talking about, and it taught me the difference between luck and God.”
“You just said you can’t tell the difference.”
“Well I can.”
“So what’s the difference?”
“There is none. That’s what I learned.”
When they come back inside they see that Sissy’s awake. She’s a more compact version of her sister: plumper and shorter, with dark hair tucked behind her ears. The girls are sitting on the brown couch, a green plastic mixing bowl with a pour-spout perched in collaborative balance on their just-touching knees.
“There’s two more spoons here on the coffee table, so you boys dig right in,” Sissy says. Rick hustles over, grabs a utensil and the bowl. The girls scoot back from each other so he can insinuate himself between them.The metal spoons make hollow clorks as they scrape the frosting from the wall of the bowl. It sounds like someone is knocking quietly, erratic and persistent, on a door.
Trace doesn’t want any frosting, and even if he did he’s not going to scoop it with a spoon out of Rick’s lap. Quinoa, he thinks, shuddering at the memory of his friend’s breast. Sit-ups in the bedroom. Jogging in the snow. He gathers what he needs from the sideboard, pleased to see the ice bucket already full. Each glass gets two ice cubes, three fingers of whisky, and four drops of aromatic bitters. “My famous two-three-fours,” he says. “My patented method.”
“I’m three-eighths Italian,” Sissy says. It occurs to Trace that nobody has introduced them. “Joy has an eighth from Poppop Louis, but the other’s only mine, from Bill. Joy left home when I was little. Her and Bill could not get along, they simply couldn’t. There was no understanding each other, and then it was like no one could understand anyone. Me and her hardly got to know each other before she had to leave, and that’s why we’re getting to know each other now.”
“To be clear, my leaving wasn’t a forced thing,” Joy says. “I want to say for the record it was a decision I made. I was wise for how young I was, and extremely self-possessed. I had ferocity and drive, all right. That’s what the guidance counselor said.”
“You guys want to play a game?” Rick asks. “We’ve got Risk. We’ve got Monopoly and Settlers of Catan.”
“I don’t play games about war, capitalism, or settlers,” Sissy says.
“I can’t tell if she’s kidding,” Trace says, looking right at Rick as he says this. He’s attempting that kind of flirting where you talk about the woman like she isn’t there.
“I know when she’s kidding,” Joy says, rattling the ice in her glass. “What I can’t always tell is what the joke is.”
“There’s cards,” Rick says.
“Oh that’s much better,” Sissy says. “You could even say that settles it. Cards it is.”
They’ve been playing rummy for what feels like hours, which doesn’t seem like it ought to be possible. Trace eyes his mostly drained glass, starts counting backwards through the refills but loses track. He excuses himself from the game to use the restroom. He has one hand on the wall to steady himself and is opening his zipper with the other. That goes okay, but now he’s having trouble with the flap of his boxers. It’s that kind that doesn’t fly-gap because the pieces of fabric overlap, so you have to kind of pull them apart to get yourself out there. It’s not a complicated maneuver and he understands what it means that he’s having this tough of a time.
Monica Tottenham, he thinks. Krista Daulerio. He wonders where Krista Daulerio is right now. He could look her up on Facebook, where they’re already friends. When their ten-year came around, they both joined the reunion group that Morgan Whitten set up, and soon after that she sent a request and he accepted, though it might have been vice versa, and they’ve been posting happy birthday to each other ever since. She has kids, he knows: two of them. A boy and a girl, or maybe two girls, and they’re in, where is it, one of the Carolinas? He thinks he’d rather kill himself than check. He knows where Monica Tottenham is, at least. Hiding in an Irving Park closet with her hair in her face and one breast exposed while, in the next room, her sick husband wheezes and sweats in his sleep. That’s a sad thought too, but not so sad that he isn’t going to look.
How long was Trace gone? Joy is passed out in her seat on the couch and the card game is apparently over. There’s whisky in the mixing bowl and the frosting has turned to soup. Sissy has the pour-spout up to her mouth while Rick stands over her, angling the bowl. Trace imagines what the mixture must taste like: a treacly silt-textured heat. Lakebed, Trace thinks. The bowl blocks out Sissy’s whole face. He wonders if her eyes are closed.
“I’m exhausted,” Trace says. “Breakfast, say, nine o’clock, or more like ten?”
“Whenever you want, my friend,” Rick says. He puts down the bowl and turns to face him. “But listen, it’s about to be true blue time.”
Sharon’s ring is on Sissy’s finger. He sees it now, as she wipes frosting from her mouth with the back of her hand. Not her wedding hand, the other one, but still.
Joy snorts in her sleep, as if startled, her weight shifting and settling as Sissy gets up from the couch.
Rick and Sissy are putting on their boots.
“I owe you,” he says, and gives Trace a crushing hug. “This seems complicated now but it isn’t. Things look one way at night and another in the day.”
“Shit,” Trace says. “I wish I was the one who just said that to you.”
“True blue time, old friend. I’ll make it up to you come summer. Think July.”
Through the front window, Trace watches the headlights come on, wonders when they’ll start to move and then they do, the action so closely following his anticipation of it that for a moment he is able to believe that what he is seeing are his own thoughts actualized, as if he had coaxed this event out of its formless potential and into worldly form. There’s a decorative granite boulder on the grass at the edge of the driveway. It’s the size of a public mailbox and Rick drives into it, the bumper crumpling. Car doors fly open. Rick is shouting and cursing while Sissy wails. “I got the snake in my heart, all right,” she cries. “And so do you, but you don’t even know it. That’s the trip you’re on, Rick.”
Rick gets back in the car, but Sissy doesn’t. She’s halfway up the driveway when the reverse lights pop on, and Trace decides to be in the living room when they come back inside.
When they enter, he sees Sissy’s nose is or was bleeding, but at least she’s quieted down.
“What happened?” Joy says, waking. “I fell asleep and I feel sick now and I want to know what happened.”
“Your sister had an accident,” Rick says. “She went to have a smoke out on the deck and she slipped on the ice, but Trace helped her up and she’s fine. We’re all going to bed and there will be pancakes and bacon in the morning.”
“But not too early,” Joy says, clearly still more asleep than awake. Here voice is small and begging as a child’s. She might as well be asking for ice cream, or a pony, or for her parents not to fight.
In the morning Trace walks through the house, imagining its stillness as water and himself as a fish swimming through it, frictionless and perfectly at home. He can see the blue-white of the frozen lake now. He puts coffee on, enough for everyone. He’ll take a shower while it brews.
The bathroom has entrances on both sides. It connects the room Trace always stays in—the one Rick’s dad liked to call “Trace’s room”—to the one with the twin beds, where Sissy is. He’s about to lock the door from his side for privacy but instead of plunging the lock button he grasps the brass knob and turns it so, so slowly. The silent way they taught themselves when they were young. He feels like Sissy is, in some small but serious sense, now also his. Someone ought to look in on her and he’s the one who knows how to turn this knob, these hinges, so nothing makes a sound. This is his house as much as it is anyone’s.
There’s a way a room feels when newly vacated, and there’s another way it feels when a measure of emptiness has accrued. No girl and no bags and no mussed-up bed; no personal effects on the nightstand, not a book or a ring or a coin.
Trace takes his suit and shirt and tie out of the garment bag and hangs each from a clothes hook in the bathroom. He drapes the suit pants over the towel bar. He lingers in the shower, giving the steam the time it needs to do its work. When the water is off and the mirror is defogged, he shaves his face and combs his hair and clips his nails, fingers and toes both; he plucks the pair of stray hairs that always sprout between his brows.
When he returns to the kitchen fully dressed to have his coffee, Joy is there, sitting at the table in a cinched-tight cotton robe with a pattern of holly boughs. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that Trace is clean shaven and wearing a suit, his tie in a crisp double Windsor, his hair shiny and brittle with gel.
“Sissy was never right in the head,” Joy says. “It was a family issue. And I wasn’t the one who went away, not the first time. My mom and Bill had to send her to a place when she was eight because she wouldn’t stop throwing rocks at the ducks in the park. She wanted to murder them. She’d throw rocks until she broke one’s wing, then she’d run over and stomp its neck. You’d take her to the playground and turn your head for two seconds to talk to someone, and you’d look up and she’d be halfway to the pond.”
“You hear about boys doing stuff like that,” Trace says. “I mean not always, but usually.”
“Rick’s got his work cut out, is all I’ll say.”
But that isn’t all. She talks for hours, telling Trace what amounts to her whole life story; he occasionally asks a question or offers his point of view on something, but mostly he just sits and listens. They eat leftover chicken and rice for lunch. He makes another round of his patented two-three-fours.
She works backwards through her twenties, the men who came before Rick and her years living out on her own and how hard and fucked up it all was and what high school was like before she left—how it seemed bad at the time but in retrospect she hadn’t yet known what bad was—and her mixed feelings when Sissy was born, and how awkward it was when Bill moved in—this hairy alien in boxer shorts, walking around like he belonged in her house—but how exciting it had been before that, back before the first time she ever met Bill, when her mother talked him up until he became, in Joy’s mind, this towering promise, a dream no man could have made good on, and it was all because her mother had wanted Joy to like him. “All mom ever wanted was for everyone to get along and like each other,” she says, her voice hoarse from having talked for so long. “That was mom’s whole problem right there.”
They stay the week at the mountain house. Trace does the cooking: scrambled eggs, canned soup, spaghetti. They don’t go shopping. It would be impossible to go into the world and then come back here; whatever they’re doing only makes sense in the context of it already occurring, of them already being where they are. The fridge is well stocked, plus there’s stuff in the freezer. Trace makes bacon and pancakes. It’s easy to work with what they have.
Joy keeps up with the dishes. They drink, but not to excess; are early to bed but late to rise.
Trace is grateful to have recovered that feeling, which he associates specifically with this house and time of year, of never again having to be anywhere. The mountain house has always made him feel like a ghost in the best way possible, like if you could burrow so deep into life that it forgot about you and you were free. He wishes that this was what his friend meant when he talked about true blue time. He is and is not surprised they haven’t heard from Rick or Sissy—though it’s possible that Joy has. How would Trace know? They’ve barely spoken since she told her whole life story, other than to ask for a plate of food to be passed, or to say good morning or good night.
The day before they leave, Joy walks into the living room wearing a pair of tear-away track pants and a zippered hooded sweatshirt, the outfit identical to her sister’s. They must have gone shopping together, he thinks; that’s a thing that sisters would do. Trace is on the brown couch browsing a Selected Tales & Sketches of Nathaniel Hawthorne that has been on the shelf in this living room for as long as he’s been coming here. Pages yellowed and spine cracked; he thinks it was Rick’s mom’s school copy. Didn’t Rick’s dad say that once?
Joy stands before him, her shadow across the page. She unzips her zipper enough to show she is bare underneath. He puts the book down and pulls her to the couch, helping her out of her clothes and in due course entering her, though it all seems to have little to do with him, with either of them. She straddles his lap and bucks in his arms but is elsewhere. And if he is elsewhere also then maybe there’s nobody here and nothing is happening. Imagine this living room empty, a still life: old furniture and afternoon light; lone fly frozen in its course through moted air. Trace tries to kiss Joy as he finishes but she turns her face away, giving him the down by her ear. She climbs off him, reaches for her clothing. He decides to go outside, and a few minutes later she joins him there. They stand together on the back deck and watch the sun slip behind the lake. It’s warmer than it was a few days ago. They listen to the thawing ice crack and groan.
From Sewanee Review. Used with permission of Sewanee Review. Copyright © 2017 by Justin Taylor.