THE VOLUNTEERS WAIT IN A CLUSTER on the beach. Thirty or so of them in all. Faces Jackie recognizes, people who’ve been coming to the Point for a long time. If her mother were here, she’d be nudging Jackie, whispering, That twit brings his wife up one weekend and his mistress the next.
Or, Boy did the DeWitt girl ever straighten out.
The afternoon sun spills across the surface of the lake. You wouldn’t know a man drowned here this morning. An out-of-towner. Male. Early thirties. It’s always the men, thinks Jackie. They underestimate the rip current. It’ll pull you halfway to Erie, Pennsylvania before you even realize.
“His poor family,” says Anna, standing next to Jackie. “How terrible.” A ladybug lands on her bare shoulder. She flicks it away.
What does Anna know about terrible things? Jackie wonders, glaring. There’s a dull ache in her forehead, tucked behind her skull. She was trying to sleep it off when she heard the helicopter. It circled for hours. She knew what it meant. After lunch, she told Chris to take Felix to town for the afternoon. Her brother, Jeff, went with them. Anna stayed. Someone from Norfolk County Fire & Rescue came by the cottage, saying they needed volunteers to help with the search.
Now, another County man appears before the crowd with a megaphone.
“We’re going to make a chain,” he calls, corralling them.
The group thins out. Anna seizes Jackie’s hand before she can move away. The lady who ends up on her left has a cottage on the channel side. Jackie thinks she was at the funeral.
The County man wades out to a Sea-Doo and revs the engine. It’s a slow march into the water. Jackie’s arms break out in a rash of goosebumps. The lake is always colder after a storm. And opaque. Brown. Unsettled.
“I kind of hope we don’t find him,” whispers Anna. “Is that bad?”
“Don’t think about it,” says Jackie. Though she’s thought about it herself. What it might feel like. A waterlogged body. She imagines a certain leadenness, pickled skin. She shivers.
Jackie has been coming to the Point her whole life. When she was little, she’d wade into the water hand in hand with her mother. Her father wasn’t a swimmer. He never went in, only stayed on the shore.
They reach the first sandbar and stagger to a collective stop. Jackie is stretched between Anna and the woman from the channel side. Gentle waves slosh at her knees.
“We’re stopping?” Anna pokes her head out, looking down the line. Another call from the County man, and they advance in slow motion. The last time the Van Leeuwens came to the Point as a family, Jackie was fifteen. Later that year, her father disappeared. He was gone ten whole months before he reappeared like it was nothing. He wouldn’t say where he’d been. Jackie’s mother never got over it.
It probably killed her. That came later, though. Years of high blood pressure. Narrow arteries, a weak heart—she was at an Aquafit class the first time it gave out. That time, she survived.
The water is up to Jackie’s hips now. This is where it drops off, she thinks.
“That’s six to four,” said Jackie. Smug, because she and Anna were winning. She pushed the cards towards Chris. “Your deal.”
Chris didn’t care for euchre. Not like the Van Leeuwens. The Van Leeuwens were a euchre-playing family. That is, when they were still a family. Now, Jackie’s mother was two years dead. Jackie no longer spoke to her father. She saw Jeff once a year, when she and Chris brought Felix here for a week in the summer.
“Time out,” said Jeff. “Anyone want anything?”
“Another beer,” said Chris.
“I’ll take a top-up.” Jackie handed Jeff her glass.
“Nothing for me,” said Anna, rising from the table. The Van Leeuwen cottage was modest—just a large room, really, that opened onto three closet-sized bedrooms. She walked to the row of windows at the back, looking out at the shifting darkness that was the lake.
“You sure?” called Jackie. All of the windows were shut, but the roar of the wind and the crash of the waves filled the cottage.
Anna must not have heard, Jackie thought as she watched Chris deal the cards. On his face, the same look of forced concentration Felix, made when he read. She smiled at the thought. Buoyed by a multitude of rum and Cokes, she could forget the fight he’d put up about brushing his teeth. Maybe he wouldn’t cry for her later tonight. Alcohol made raising a child seem only mildly awful.
Chris doled out four neat piles of five cards. He put the kitty in the middle of the table and turned over the upcard.
“Not yet,” whispered Jackie. “Jeff’ll murder you.”
He turned the card back over. Under the table, she rubbed a clumsy foot against his. God, she loved him. For stepping in when Felix got mouthy. For playing euchre. For making an effort with Jeff and his funsponge of a girlfriend. When Jeff brought her last year, Jackie hadn’t paid much attention, because Jeff’s relationships never lasted. He didn’t even have a type. Women, plural. That used to be his type.
Jackie studied Anna as she returned to the table, wondering what it was that had made Jeff settle on her. Anna was pretty in an unexceptional way, and gawky. She had that thing all the twenty-something women were after: a thigh gap. Jackie’s thighs were dimpled and doughy, like oliebollen batter. They probably hadn’t not touched since 1985.
“Windy out there,” Anna murmured.
Looks aside, though, thought Jackie, she was too aloof.
“Gearing up for a storm,” said Jeff. He smiled, set the drinks on the table, and took his seat next to Jackie.
“Erie likes to show off,” Jackie added. A thundercloud groaned in the distance, as if to prove her point.
“Guess that’s our cue,” said Chris, turning over the upcard. “Game on.”
“Yes sir,” said Jeff.
They were silent as they studied their cards. Jackie thought about the countless summer storms she’d played out here as a girl, in the company of her parents and brother. The four of them would sit around this very same table. When the electricity went, they lit candles. Jackie could still picture her mother’s smirk, her cards held to her chest like a titillating secret. If Jackie’s father had a good hand, you’d never know it. She used to admire that about him. Her parents had married in their thirties—late, for their generation. As a girl, Jackie had taken this as a positive sign. They were sensible, sure of each other.
“Jackie? Your turn.”
Looking down at her cards, Jackie realized she had a dismal hand. Three nines, two queens, and one of every single suit. She passed. The others did, too. Jeff and Chris took five tricks, tying the game. It was Jackie’s turn to deal.
“Do you remember,” started Jeff, “when Mom used to go away for the weekend and we’d stage those euchre tournaments in the basement?”
“Marty lost his old junker in a bet,” Jackie said, grinning as she shuffled the cards. “And on Monday morning his dad showed up at school to beg Jerry De Vries to give it back.”
Adulthood had set Jeff and Jackie adrift of one another. Now, whenever they got together, they ended up reminiscing about that time. “Where was your mom?” asked Anna.
“Our dad left,” Jackie began, dealing the cards. “Our mom was, you know. Devastated. She used to go around to different cities showing his picture to people.”
“Actually, he went missing,” said Jeff. He was still in contact with their father.
“You mean he decided to go missing.”
“We don’t know—”
“We would if he would just tell us what happened,” said Jackie, turning over a queen of spades.
“So your parents just left you alone?” asked Anna. White light filled the cottage, illuminating the freckles dotting her nose.
“It was the eighties,” said Jeff. “Things were different then.”
“To be fair,” said Jackie. “Jeff was seventeen. He should have been capable of looking after me. Instead, he started an illegal gambling operation in our basement.”
“What about that babysitter Mom hired?” asked Jeff. “She wasn’t exactly going out of her way to stop me. Pass, by the way.”
“She was nineteen.” Jeff always brought up the babysitter, thought Jackie. Did he know? She studied her hand. She had both bowers. If she picked up that queen, she could go this round alone. That’d be four points a win for her team. That’d show Jeff.
“Pass,” said Anna.
“Pass,” said Chris, eyeing Jackie.
“What was her name again?” asked Jeff.
“Sharon,” said Jackie, offhandedly. “Spades. And I’m going to go it alone.”
“Winner gets the loser’s car,” said Jeff, playing the ace of diamonds. “You want our minivan?” asked Jackie. She took the trick. “It’s yours.”
“You know she was at Mom’s funeral.”
“I know,” snapped Jackie. Seeing Sharon at the funeral had sparked a small-scale, pre-midlife crisis, during which time Jackie began to look at women the way a man might. There was Felix’s grade two teacher, a sinewy woman with a mop of tight auburn curls. Or, the Office of External Relations woman, with the New Agey name Jackie could never remember. Aura, or something. Did Jackie have a type? She had no clue. Once, Sharon had been her type.
“She looked,” said Jeff, “different. Don’t you think?”
“I’d hope. Twenty years later,” said Jackie. What was he getting at? “Look. Can we, like, drop the babysitter thing?”
“I thought you guys were friends?”
“Why would I be friends with our old babysitter?” She slapped the left bower down. Jeff laid a low spade, Chris an ace. Jackie took the trick. Three more tricks, and she’d get her four points. She looked at Anna, who was sitting with her chin propped on her hands, a yawn about to slide across her face.
“You were close back then.”
“Are you still friends with everybody you knew back then?” The wrong question, Jackie knew immediately. Because Jeff had never left their hometown.
“Don’t get so worked up.” Her brother was the only person in the world who could use that line. Now, she couldn’t deny being worked up without sounding worked up. Jackie had a thought, then. What if she told him?
She played the right bower. “You know what,” she started.
“What?” asked Jeff, laying an off-suit card.
Chris hesitated, surveying Jackie. He laid a diamond. Jackie took the trick.
“Sharon and I,” she continued. She had to play a card first. King of spades or king of clubs? She chose the spade.
“We were girlfriends.” No, thought Jackie. That wasn’t quite right. Not girlfriends. She had girlfriends—female friends—now. “We were. Together.”
“We were,” she hesitated. “Romantic.”
A series of thin furrows materialized between Jeff’s eyebrows. He had their father’s wide forehead, the same deep-set navy eyes. He set the jack of diamonds down on the table. Chris played a nine. Jackie took her fourth trick. She lifted her chin as she swept away the cards. Anna was watching her.
“You were. What, fifteen?” said Jeff, at last. “Isn’t that kind of. Wrong? She took advantage of you.”
“Right,” said Jackie. At the funeral, the four years between them seemed utterly insignificant. “Because you never dated anyone that young when you were nineteen?”
A clap of thunder sounded, so forceful Jackie saw the cards tremble on the table. Felix would be awake soon. She played her final card.
“That’s different,” said Jeff. “I mean, at that age. How could you know?”
“Know what?” asked Jackie.
Jeff played a low diamond and looked to Chris. “Did you know about this?”
“What does this have to do with him?” Jackie interrupted. She heard a moan from Felix’s room.
“Yeah,” Chris answered, clutching his last card. “I knew.”
“And you’re okay with it?”
“Yeah,” said Chris. He set down the ace of clubs, taking the trick as Felix erupted into a full-fledged howl.
“Then I guess everything worked out,” said Jeff, looking from Jackie to Chris and back. He swiped the cards into a messy pile. “What is that now? Seven to six?”
Jackie frowned. “What are you saying?”
“It means you didn’t get your four points,” said Jeff.
“No,” said Jackie. “You guess everything worked out? You mean I didn’t end up with Sharon? You mean I’m not—” Jackie stopped herself. She had never felt right calling herself one thing or another. She stood up. She left the table.
In Felix’s room, the darkness was disorienting. “Mummy’s here,” she whispered. She padded her way to his bed and fit her body next to his, lifting his pyjama to rub the hot skin on his back. “Shhh,” she murmured.
Around the same time Jackie’s father reappeared, Sharon left for university. For months, Jackie wrote her long-winded letters in blue ink, the tip of her ballpoint pen tearing the paper. When Sharon stopped writing back, Jackie was inconsolable. She wanted to tell someone, but she couldn’t explain what had happened with Sharon—not even to herself.
Meanwhile, her family was imploding. Jeff had moved out. Jackie started spending all of her time in her room, thinking about Sharon. Her mother’s shouts carried up the stairs. Tell me. Where. You were. As far as Jackie knew, her father maintained his characteristic self-possession. He never told her.
Felix’s breathing slowed. Jackie could feel his small body letting go, his awareness receding.
Two years passed. Jackie left for university, where she met Chris. They married after graduation, and for a while Jackie thought little of her past. She had Felix, and realized she blamed her mother for the way she’d handled her father’s disappearance. She would not be like her. She would not abandon her child before he was ready. When her mother had the first heart attack, Jackie’s anger shifted. There was something about her father—about the type of man that he was—that had escaped her attention entirely.
Jackie hadn’t realized she’d dozed off until the door opened. Someone was standing in the doorway.
The light. From the bed, Jackie could see it silhouetting Anna’s thighs, the space between them glowing. She sat up, startled.
They’re up to their midriffs now, their linked hands suspended above the surface. Jackie looks back. Strung out on the shoreline, the pastel-coloured cottages look like beads on a candy necklace. She can picture her father, a lone figure on the beach. In his swim trunks, though he never set foot in the water. Her father may have returned, but the man she believed he was—that man was never found.
“I wonder,” says Anna. “How much farther. We can walk.”
“Erie is shallow. There’s probably another sand bar.”
“What I don’t get,” starts Anna. “Is how a full-grown man gets pulled under here?”
“That’s it,” says Jackie. “The current doesn’t pull you under. It pulls you out. You get tired. And then.”
“Oh,” says Anna.
“It happens every year.”
“You mean, people drown?”
“Jeff never mentioned that.”
“Mr. Positive,” says Jackie.
“I know,” says Anna.
Jackie waits, wondering if Anna will say more.
“Jeff is great.”
“Yeah?” asks Jackie.
Jackie frowns. She was still in a fog when Anna sat down next to her on the bed. Her hand grazed Jackie’s leg, ever-so-lightly. Jackie’s heat felt like shame, her son sound asleep next to her in the bed. She stood up. Dizziness caught her, and then Anna was gone. She remembered Sharon, and felt something between sadness and fury.
The water laps at her collarbone. It’s up to the chin of the lady from the channel side. Jackie’s toes just graze the bottom. That’s when she sees it. A flash of something pale between the waves. Driftwood, thinks Jackie, because dead bodies don’t float. Or do they?
“Can you see that?”
“What?” asks Anna.
“There’s something there.” Jackie points. The more she studies it, the more it looks like a limb. An arm, maybe.
“I see it,” says Anna.
The water level is dropping now. Jackie’s soles meet the sand again. They’ve reached the second sandbar.
“Come forward,” calls the County man.
Jackie keeps her eyes fixed on the floating thing. Shouldn’t the helicopter have spotted it sticking out of the water? It catches the sunlight, slick and shining.
Jackie feels herself being pulled towards it, her hand locked in Anna’s. She tells herself it’s just a piece of wood. Probably blew in with the storm. So why isn’t it drifting closer? It disappears, resurfacing in the same place, about twenty feet away, a moment later. For the first time in her life, she fears the water and what it might hold.
Once, just after Jackie’s father disappeared, she overheard her mother on the phone. He had a past, you know. What had she meant by that? Fifteen feet. She is almost sure now—it isn’t. Him. But then, there’s a heaviness to it. It’s not bobbing. Not like driftwood. Jackie digs her heels into the sand. She lets go, breaking the chain. Thing is, she has a past, too.
Anna is watching her. Jackie takes one step forward, then another. Suddenly, she sees the illusion. It’s just a branch. Just a branch that looks like an arm. She understands, then. Some things are meant to stay lost.