Henry / BEACH READ
I have a fatal flaw.
I like to think we all do. Or at least that makes it easier for me when I’m writing—building my heroines and heroes up around this one self-sabotaging trait, hinging everything that happens to them on a specific characteristic: the thing they learned to do to protect themselves and can’t let go of, even when it stops serving them.
Maybe, for example, you didn’t have much control over your life as a kid. So, to avoid disappointment, you learned never to ask yourself what you truly wanted. And it worked for a long time. Only now, upon realizing you didn’t get what you didn’t know you wanted, you’re barreling down the highway in a midlife-crisis-mobile with a suitcase full of cash and a man named Stan in your trunk.
Maybe your fatal flaw is that you don’t use turn signals.
Or maybe, like me, you’re a hopeless romantic. You just can’t stop telling yourself the story. The one about your own life, complete with melodramatic soundtrack and golden light lancing through car windows.
It started when I was twelve. My parents sat me down to tell me the news. Mom had gotten her first diagnosis—suspicious cells in her left breast—and she told me not to worry so many times I suspected I’d be grounded if she caught me at it. My mom was a do-er, a laugher, an optimist, not a worrier, but I could tell she was terrified, and so I was too, frozen on the couch, unsure how to say anything without making things worse.
But then my bookish homebody of a father did something unexpected. He stood and grabbed our hands—one of Mom’s, one of mine—and said, You know what we need to get these bad feelings out? We need to dance!
Our suburb had no clubs, just a mediocre steak house with a Friday night cover band, but Mom lit up like he’d just suggested taking a private jet to the Copacabana.
She wore her buttery yellow dress and some hammered metal earrings that twinkled when she moved. Dad ordered twenty-year-old Scotch for them and a Shirley Temple for me, and the three of us twirled and bobbed until we were dizzy, laughing, tripping all over. We laughed until we could barely stand, and my famously reserved father sang along to “Brown Eyed Girl” like the whole room wasn’t watching us.
And then, exhausted, we piled into the car and drove home through the quiet, Mom and Dad holding tight to each other’s hands between the seats, and I tipped my head against the car window and, watching the streetlights flicker across the glass, thought, It’s going to be okay. We will always be okay.
And that was the moment I realized: when the world felt dark and scary, love could whisk you off to go dancing; laughter could take some of the pain away; beauty could punch holes in your fear. I decided then that my life would be full of all three. Not just for my own benefit, but for Mom’s, and for everyone else around me.
There would be purpose. There would be beauty. There would be candlelight and Fleetwood Mac playing softly in the background.
The point is, I started telling myself a beautiful story about my life, about fate and the way things work out, and by twenty-eight years old, my story was perfect.
Perfect (cancer-free) parents who called several times a week, tipsy on wine or each other’s company. Perfect (spontaneous, multilingual, six foot three) boyfriend who worked in the ER and knew how to make coq au vin. Perfect shabby chic apartment in Queens. Perfect job writing romantic novels—inspired by perfect parents and perfect boyfriend—for Sandy Lowe Books.
But it was just a story, and when one gaping plot hole appeared, the whole thing unraveled. That’s how stories work.
Now, at twenty-nine, I was miserable, broke, semi-homeless, very single, and pulling up to a gorgeous lake house whose very existence nauseated me. Grandly romanticizing my life had stopped serving me, but my fatal flaw was still riding shotgun in my dinged-up Kia Soul, narrating things as they happened:
January Andrews stared out the car window at the angry lake beating up on the dusky shore. She tried to convince herself that coming here hadn’t been a mistake.
It was definitely a mistake, but I had no better option. You didn’t turn down free lodging when you were broke.
I parked on the street and stared up at the oversized cottage’s facade, its gleaming windows and fairy tale of a porch, the shaggy beach grass dancing in the warm breeze.
I checked the address in my GPS against the handwritten one hanging from the house key. This was it, all right.
For a minute, I stalled, like maybe a world-ending asteroid would take me out before I was forced to go inside. Then I took a deep breath and got out, wrestling my overstuffed suitcase from the back seat along with the cardboard box full of gin handles.
I pushed a fistful of dark hair out of my eyes to study the cornflower blue shingles and snow-white trim. Just pretend you’re at an Airbnb.
Immediately, an imaginary Airbnb listing ran through my head: Three-bedroom, three-bath lakeside cottage brimming with charm and proof your father was an asshole and your life has been a lie.
I started up the steps cut into the grassy hillside, blood rushing through my ears like fire hoses and legs wobbling, anticipating the moment the hellmouth would open and the world would drop out from under me.
That already happened. Last year. And it didn’t kill you, so neither will this.
On the porch, every sensation in my body heightened. The tingling in my face, the twist in my stomach, the sweat prickling along my neck. I balanced the box of gin against my hip and slipped the key into the lock, a part of me hoping it would jam. That all this would turn out to be an elaborate practical joke Dad had set up for us before he died.
Or, better yet, he wasn’t actually dead. He’d jump out from behind the bushes and scream, “Gotcha! You didn’t really think I had a secret second life, did you? You couldn’t possibly think I had a second house with some woman other than your mother?”
The key turned effortlessly. The door swung inward.
The house was silent.
An ache went through me. The same one I’d felt at least once a day since I got Mom’s call about the stroke and heard her sob those words. He’s gone, Janie.
No Dad. Not here. Not anywhere. And then the second pain, the knife twisting: The father you knew never existed anyway.
I’d never really had him. Just like I’d never really had my ex Jacques or his coq au vin.
It was just a story I’d been telling myself. From now on, it was the ugly truth or nothing. I steeled myself and stepped inside.
My first thought was that the ugly truth wasn’t super ugly. My dad’s love nest had an open floor plan: a living room that spilled into a funky, blue-tiled kitchen and homey breakfast nook, the wall of windows just beyond overlooking a dark-stained deck.
If Mom had owned this place, everything would’ve been a mix of creamy, calming neutrals. The bohemian room I’d stepped into would’ve been more at home in Jacques’s and my old place than my parents’. I felt a little queasy imagining Dad here, among these things Mom never would’ve picked out: the folksy hand-painted breakfast table, the dark wooden bookshelves, the sunken couch covered in mismatched pillows.
There was no sign of the version of him that I’d known.
My phone rang in my pocket and I set the box on the granite countertop to answer the call.
“Hello?” It came out weak and raspy.
“How is it?” the voice on the other end said immediately. “Is there a sex dungeon?”
“Shadi?” I guessed. I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder as I unscrewed the cap from one of my gin bottles, taking a swig to fortify myself.
“It honestly worries me that I’m the only person who might call you to ask that,” Shadi answered.
“You’re the only person who even knows about the Love Shack,” I pointed out.
“I am not the only one who knows about it,” Shadi argued.
Technically true. While I’d found out about my father’s secret lake house at his funeral last year, Mom had been aware much longer. “Fine,” I said. “You’re the only person I told about it. Anyway, give me a second. I just got here.”
“Literally?” Shadi was breathing hard, which meant she was walking to a shift at the restaurant. Since we kept such different hours, most of our calls happened when she was on her way into work.
“Metaphorically,” I said. “Literally, I’ve been here for ten minutes, but I only just feel that I have arrived.”
“So wise,” Shadi said. “So deep.”
“Shh,” I said. “I’m taking it all in.”
“Check for the sex dungeon!” Shadi hurried to say, as if I were hanging up on her.
I was not. I was simply holding the phone to my ear, holding my breath, holding my racing heart in my chest, as I scanned my father’s second life.
And there, just when I could convince myself Dad couldn’t possibly have spent time here, I spotted something framed on the wall. A clipping of a New York Times Best Sellers list from three years ago, the same one he’d positioned over the fireplace at home. There I was, at number fifteen, the bottom slot. And there, three slots above me—in a sick twist of fate—was my college rival, Gus (though now he went by Augustus, because Serious Man) and his highbrow debut novel The Revelatories. It had stayed on the list for five weeks (not that I was counting (I was absolutely counting)).
“Well?” Shadi prompted. “What do you think?”
I turned and my eyes caught on the mandala tapestry hanging over the couch.
“I’m led to wonder if Dad smoked weed.” I spun toward the windows at the side of the house, which aligned almost perfectly with the neighbor’s, a design flaw Mom would never have overlooked when house shopping.
But this wasn’t her house, and I could clearly see the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the neighbor’s study.
“Oh, god—maybe it’s a grow house, not a love shack!” Shadi sounded delighted. “You should’ve read the letter, January. It’s all been a misunderstanding. Your dad’s leaving you the family business. That Woman was his business partner, not his mistress.”
How bad was it that I wished she was right?
Either way, I’d fully intended to read the letter. I’d just been waiting for the right time, hoping the worst of my anger would settle and those last words from Dad would be comforting. Instead, a full year had passed and the dread I felt at the thought of opening the envelope grew every day. It was so unfair, that he should get the last word and I’d have no way to reply. To scream or cry or demand more answers. Once I’d opened it, there’d be no going back. That would be it. The final goodbye.
So until further notice, the letter was living a happy, if solitary, life in the bottom of the gin box I’d brought with me from Queens.
“It’s not a grow house,” I told Shadi and slid open the back door to step onto the deck. “Unless the weed’s in the basement.”
“No way,” Shadi argued. “That’s where the sex dungeon is.”
“Let’s stop talking about my depressing life,” I said. “What’s new with you?”
“You mean the Haunted Hat,” Shadi said. If only she had fewer than four roommates in her shoebox apartment in Chicago, then maybe I’d be staying with her now. Not that I was capable of getting anything done when I was with Shadi. And my financial situation was too dire not to get something done. I had to finish my next book in this rent-free hell. Then maybe I could afford my own Jacques-free place.
“If the Haunted Hat is what you want to talk about,” I said, “then yes. Spill.”
“Still hasn’t spoken to me.” Shadi sighed wistfully. “But I can, like, sense him looking at me when we’re both in the kitchen. Because we have a connection.”
“Are you at all worried that your connection isn’t with the guy who’s wearing the antique porkpie hat, but perhaps with the ghost of the hat’s original owner? What will you do if you realize you’ve fallen in love with a ghost?”
“Um.” Shadi thought for a minute. “I guess I’d have to update my Tinder bio.”
A breeze rippled off the water at the bottom of the hill, ruffling my brown waves across my shoulders, and the setting sun shot golden spears of light over everything, so bright and hot I had to squint to see the wash of oranges and reds it cast across the beach. If this were just some house I’d rented, it would be the perfect place to write the adorable love story I’d been promising Sandy Lowe Books for months.
Shadi, I realized, had been talking. More about the Haunted Hat. His name was Ricky, but we never called him that. We always spoke of Shadi’s love life in code. There was the older man who ran the amazing seafood restaurant (the Fish Lord), and then there was some guy we’d called Mark because he looked like some other, famous Mark, and now there was this new coworker, a bartender who wore a hat every day that Shadi loathed and yet could not resist.
I snapped back into the conversation as Shadi was saying, “Fourth of July weekend? Can I visit then?”
“That’s more than a month away.” I wanted to argue that I wouldn’t even be here by then, but I knew it wasn’t true. It would take me at least all summer to write a book, empty the house, and sell both, so I could (hopefully) be catapulted back into relative comfort. Not in New York, but somewhere less expensive.
I imagined Duluth was affordable. Mom would never visit me there, but we hadn’t done much visiting this past year anyway, apart from my three-day trip home for Christmas. She’d dragged me to four yoga classes, three crowded juice bars, and a Nutcracker performance starring some kid I didn’t know, like if we were alone for even a second, the topic of Dad would arise and we’d burst into flames.
All my life, my friends had been jealous of my relationship with her. How often and freely (or so I thought) we talked, how much fun we had together. Now our relationship was the world’s least competitive game of phone tag.
I’d gone from having two loving parents and a live-in boyfriend to basically just having Shadi, my much-too-long-distance best friend. The one blessing of moving from New York to North Bear Shores, Michigan, was that I was closer to her place in Chicago.
“Fourth of July’s too far off,” I complained. “You’re only three hours away.”
“Yeah, and I don’t know how to drive.”
“Then you should probably give that license back,” I said.
“Believe me, I’m waiting for it to expire. I’m going to feel so free. I hate when people think I’m able to drive just because, legally, I am.”
Shadi was a terrible driver. She screamed whenever she turned left.
“Besides, you know how scheduling off is in the industry. I’m lucky my boss said I could have Fourth of July. For all I know, he’s expecting a blow job now.”
“No way. Blow jobs are for major holidays. What you’ve got on your hands is a good old-fashioned foot job quid pro quo.”
I took another sip of gin, then turned from the end of the deck and nearly yelped. On the deck ten feet to the right of mine, the back of a head of curly brown hair peeked over a lawn chair. I silently prayed the man was asleep—that I wouldn’t have to spend an entire summer next door to someone who’d heard me shout good old-fashioned foot job.
As if he’d read my mind, he sat forward and grabbed the bottle of beer from his patio table, took a swig, and sat back.
“So true. I won’t even have to take my Crocs off,” Shadi was saying. “Anyway, I just got to work. But let me know if it’s drugs or leather in the basement.”
I turned my back to the neighbor’s deck. “I’m not going to check until you visit.”
“Rude,” Shadi said.
“Leverage,” I said. “Love you.”
“Love you more,” she insisted and hung up.
I turned to face the curly head, half waiting for him to acknowledge me, half debating whether I was obligated to introduce myself.
I hadn’t known any of my neighbors in New York well, but this was Michigan, and from Dad’s stories about growing up in North Bear Shores, I fully expected to have to lend this man sugar at some point (note: must buy sugar).
I cleared my throat and pasted on my attempt at a neighborly smile. The man sat forward for another swig of beer, and I called across the gap, “Sorry for disturbing you!”
He waved one hand vaguely, then turned the page of whatever book was in his lap. “What’s disturbing about foot jobs as a form of currency?” he drawled in a husky, bored voice.
I grimaced as I searched for a reply—any reply. Old January would have known what to say, but my mind was as blank as it was every time I opened Microsoft Word.
Okay, so maybe I’d become a bit of a hermit this past year. Maybe I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d spent the last year doing, since it wasn’t visiting Mom and it wasn’t writing, and it wasn’t charming the socks off my neighbors.
“Anyway,” I called, “I’m living here now.”
As if he’d read my thoughts, he gave a disinterested wave and grumbled, “Let me know if you need any sugar.” But he managed to make it sound more like, Never speak to me again unless you notice my house is on fire, and even then, listen for sirens first.
So much for Midwestern hospitality. At least in New York, our neighbors had brought us cookies when we moved in. (They’d been gluten-free and laced with LSD, but it was the thought that counted.)
“Or if you need directions to the nearest Sexual Fetish Depot,” the Grump added.
Heat flared through my cheeks, a flush of embarrassment and anger. The words were out before I could reconsider: “I’ll just wait for your car to pull out and follow.” He laughed, a surprised, rough sound, but still didn’t deign to face me.
“Lovely to meet you,” I added sharply, and turned to hurry back through the sliding glass doors to the safety of the house, where I would quite possibly have to hide all summer.
“Liar,” I heard him grumble before I snapped the door shut.
Copyright © 2020 by Emily Henry. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.