The brick-red Jeep Wrangler cruised beside the icy river, kicking up great sprays of snow. The driver, Peyton Granville, said, “Guess we missed the salt trucks.” Peyton was tall, coyote brown, with a boxer’s build, narrow hips and rich baritone.
Tanae Foxxe studied the Tarry Still Alps, due south, straight ahead. Their shaggy peaks shoved through the silvered clouds covering their world. The caramel crème, full-figure model wore feathered false eyelashes, silver eye shadow and cardinal lipstick. She yawned, squeezed Peyton’s thigh and sighed, “Last night was spec-tac-u-lar.”
He grinned. “I liked that little bit of pink and gold gift wrap you wore. Hope you brought more.”
Tanae considered the thigh-hugger, lace-top stockings, the powder-blue peek-a-boo bra and matching thong in her weekender. Coy, she said, “Could be.”
“I like how you think, baby girl.”
“And you’re okay, even though you had a weak pick-up line.”
“But I’m sexy. And I’m talented.”
She eyed him sideways. “So, last night was my appetizer?”
“Tonight’s the main course, baby.”
“Oooh.” Tanae fluttered her eyelashes. “Can’t wait.”
The Jeep followed the Matara River, its ice tracked by the passage of barges and river boats. When they approached the steel town Xanthor Furnace, heavier clouds darkened the dregs-of-winter sky. Tanae tasted bile. At Laurusburg, when they turned west, her throat tightened. She struggled to swallow. When Lake Selene, largest in the region, glimmered tarnished and dull beside the mountains, her heart galloped. Hoarse, she said, “Seeing the lake in winter is different.”
Peyton asked, “Are you all right?”
“I don’t know.” Tanae rubbed the goose bumps rising under her fur jacket.
He frowned and said, “Maybe we should have stayed at the spa another night or gone skiing.”
Tanae massaged her throat and rasped, “I can’t explain why, but coming back to the old resort felt necessary, like something I’ve put off for too long.”
“And this return couldn’t wait until summer, when everything’s open?”
Tanae shrugged. Her eyes stung, as though burned by smoke. She said, “I need to see the place in the … in …”
“Are you trying to say, ‘In the winter?” Peyton shrugged. “Don’t matter, baby girl. If it’s what you want, your wish is my command.”
When they reached the inn where he’d reserved a room, Peyton checked the car clock. “Just in time for dinner.”
Ashe devoured sirloin and Brazilian lobster, Tanae downed a “Beach Baby,” a banana liqueur, blackberry brandy and dark rum concoction. She followed with “A Sunshine Special” a blend of Bacardi, triple sec, Galliano and orange juice.
Peyton studied the Sunshine. “You usually have Pinot Noir with fish, and just one.” Noting her salad and peppered tuna, he asked, “Do you want that wrapped for later?”
Tanae huddled over her drink and shook her head, no.
“I thought you said that you had good times here.”
“I said my family brought me here when I was a kid.”
“I can see why. There’s an abandoned amusement park and boardwalk further on. The beaches are nice in warm weather. Why did your people stop coming?”
“We were guests of the man who owned the place.” Tanae hugged herself and bit her lip. “Daddy said he moved.”
“So, why are we here for our Valentine getaway? What’s this got to do with summer vacations?”
“I don’t know.” Tanae raised her palms, then massaged her arms. “I feel as though there’s something here I need to see or find.”
“This time of year, with people scarce, you might find it.” Peyton paid the check. “The sky’s clearing. Do you want to walk a bit?”
“Not right now.”
“Clear some of that Beach Baby and Sunshine Special. You should have eaten more, Tanae.”
Tanae huffed. She planted her elbows on the table and her chin on her palms. She blinked but could not erase pictures of slate swells humping toward shore, thrashing and spewing foam. When graphite eyes peered up from the depths, fierce and feral, Tanae wrapped her arms around herself tight and shrank from the sing-song, He does not howl when he prowls. Her gut twisted.
Peyton asked, “What’s wrong?”
Tanae steadied herself and rasped, “Nothing.”
“Is your liquid dinner getting to you?”
“I don’t know. Let’s find our room.”
* * *
The next morning, Tanae woke alone. Curled at the bed’s edge, she still wore her slacks and sweater. Shrouded in lake air and wave thrum, Tanae jumped when a key turned the door’s lock. Peyton entered wearing jogging clothes. When he opened the drapes, a wan light filled the room. He asked, “Are you feeling better?”
“I’m sorry about last night, Peyton. We had all these plans.”
“You act like we never had sex before. I brung out my masterpiece, and you spooked like you was watching that Anaconda movie. What’s going on?”
“You know I like being with you. I wanted last night to be, to …” Tanae choked.
“It’s almost time to check out and move on, baby girl. Do you want to shower first?”
When they reached the Jeep, mists thickened the lake’s chill air. In the car, Tanae wanted to warm her hands with the heat gushing from the vents but held her body tight. As they tracked through the snow along Selene Basin’s southern shore, she stared from the iced-over beach to the bleak, thrashing water. She thought, I used to like how sunlight sparkled on the waves and imagining where boats went when they crossed the horizon. I hoped I would like it here again. Maybe the problem is the cold. The winter. Why did I come here now? She said, “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Are you sure you want to go back to that place where your family stayed? There’s word it’s being redeveloped. Might not be nothing left from your time. Maybe I ought to take you home.”
Tanae forced the words, “Keep going.”
A mile further, white-washed wooden shops lined a boardwalk. Two hundred yards west, blackened beams emerged from the mists, a skeletal, burned-out grid against the grim sky. Tanae whispered, “Please stop.”
Peyton said, “Back a ways, I saw a sign about great seafood. I’m looking for some king crab and fried clams.”
“Maybe that’s the place.”
Peyton followed her gaze. “Whatever’s down there looks closed.”
“We could check. Please.” After a breath, Tanae said, “This is where we came in … where we …”
“Five minutes.”Peyton held up four big fingers and thumb.
As Tanae searched for life in the ice cream and pizza parlors, the souvenir and beach gear shops, she kept eying the distant building’s blackened bones.With each step, her heartbeat quickened. She trembled.
Peyton said, “It’s all closed.”
Tanae nodded and edged toward the yellow tape printed: Caution. Caution. Caution. Beyond, “Casino” was chiseled above the dead building’s cadaverous entrance. Tanae massaged her throat. She recalled how lights once glittered and hundreds of voices hummed inside the ringing, clanging, jangling building with a Dixieland band. She said, “When we came here, it was a … a big …a big …”
“A casino. I see that. Looks like a prison now.”
“A penny arcade,” Tanae blurted.
Peyton planted big fists on his hips. “I guess all that ironwork must have been filled with glass. Anyways, I don’t want nothing to do with it.”
Tanae studied the intricate latticework. Some still held a few grayed panes. “It was like an atrium. It was …” She recalled how the glow through the roof dimmed the moon and stars.
“Like a, a-tree-what?”
“A glass building, like where flowers …”
Peyton studied her, then said, “Where flowers grow. Yeah, I can see that.”
“It was magical at night. Everything together was, it was …” Tanae stared at the bleak building, then at the hissing waves.
“Why do you do that?”
“Cut off your sentences. How come you can’t finish saying what you start?”
Paws thumped behind them, fast and closing. Tanae gasped, whirled and faced a black Labrador retriever.
“Here, boy!” A woman in parka and leggings called, “He won’t hurt you. He’s friendly.”
As the dog galumphed closer, Tanae squealed and backed away. Peyton squeezed her hand while commanding, “Hey! Dog! You heard your lady. Get back up there!”
The Lab skidded, tilted his head and studied them, alert and curious. When the woman whistled, the dog woofed at Peyton, wagged its tail and bounded back across the sand.
“What’s going on here?” Peyton stood with shoulders square, in at-ease stance.
Tanae raised her collar, thinking, What if that dog had been gray, like shadows. Thank goodness its eyes weren’t like coal smoke.
Peyton squinted at her, then at the building. “The closer we get to the place, the spookier you get. Where’s the ghost?”
Tanae looked north where the looming lake merged with sky, then at the dead building. Shadows shifted inside. She backed a step, then more.
“Come on.” Peyton circled the yellow tape. “Let’s see what’s in there.”
“It’s blocked.” Tanae pointed at the “Danger” and “No Trespassing” signs hung on a chain-link fence.
“Work crews aren’t out in this weather. Besides, it’s the weekend. Let’s get past this fence while the water’s low.”
“But it might not be safe.”Fine rain weighted the mists. Tanae braced herself to keep from running.
“The sand won’t shift.” Peyton eyed the bulldozers and forklifts. “If they’re not sinking, we won’t. Come on.”
Tanae studied the gap between the fence and the roiling waves. They attacked the shore as though hurled by a monstrous wolf rising from the deep. Through the spume, the hoar beast slid along her wall. It smelled of stale liquor, smoke and after shave. It covered her mouth and growled, “Hush, girl. Don’t make a sound.” His flint-gray eyes glinted. He touched and rubbed and probed as relentlessly as the waves seething across the beach. Her mattress sagged. The springs groaned.
He said, “I seen how you look at me, little lady. I’m here ‘cause you want this.” He massaged Tanae’s belly. “And you don’t want folks knowing what you been dreaming of and what you been wanting me to do. If you tell anyone, you’ll be in big trouble. Your mommy and daddy will be hurt.” He licked her eyelids. He slipped his hand between her thighs, crooning, “That makes you feel good, don’t it?”
Tanae shoved at him, whimpering, “No, Uncle Jack. Please.”
Far away, beyond the waves and clouds and sky, Tanae heard, “Who is Uncle Jack?”
Startled, Tanae blinked up at Peyton who held her wrists. She shook free and ran. At the Jeep, Tanae stared east, away from the casino. When Peyton reached her, they stood silent except for Tanae’s sniffling. After a while, Peyton asked, “How old were you?”
“Three, maybe four.”
He said, “Sometimes, at the barber shop, those talk shows come on, the kind that get into people’s problems. You can learn a lot in the two hours it can take for a chair to free up.”
He continued, “They say that if a kid’s young, sometimes, they forget … until there’s a trigger.”
Tanae covered her eyes as though to block the man who bought her the red tricycle and the pink, satin pajamas embroidered with Teddy bears and who winked at her when he laughed. Uncle Jack.
Peyton opened her door and drove a while before saying, “It wasn’t your fault, no matter what that man told you. They say that, too on those talk shows.”
“That’s easy to say.”
“Where is this Uncle Jack?” When I find him, he won’t be touching nothing, never.”
Tanae sobbed great, air-gulping wails until Peyton parked and held her.
When she could speak, through the huge hiccoughs, Tanae said, “When he left me, I heard him and Daddy in the hall. Later, there was that fire at the casino, and Uncle Jack was gone.”
“No sign of him since? Not hide nor hair?”
“Sounds like your daddy saved me some trouble.”
“I never realized.I never put it together until now.”
“And now you know:You got men willing to do extreme right by you, baby girl.”
“Thank you.”Tears glittered in her natural lashes. The feathery ones were in her case.
As Peyton steered back onto the lonely road, he asked, “So, the man was your uncle? By blood or marriage?”
“No. He was Daddy’s army buddy.”
“And, in all this time, nobody never said anything? Folks talked about the good times down here, never came back and acted like nothing happened.”
“Thinking back, I realize there was always some hush or pause when those summer trips were mentioned.”
“Why did you come back now, in the winter?”
Tanae revisited the sunny pink room Uncle Jack invaded. “Maybe because … because …”
Peyton said, “Finish it.”
She gulped air and said, “Maybe I came back now because the weekend felt so good and safe with you. Maybe I needed things gray and cold and empty. Maybe the summer crowds, the color and heat would have been too much.”
“See. You’re getting better. Maybe all this is curing your aposiopesis.”
“Ah-poh-see-oph-sis. I think that’s how they say it. Means breaking off sentences before they’re done. Amazing what you learn at the barber shop.”
“All right Word Wizard, now what?”
Peyton braked at a diner with steamy windows and the sign, “Best Seafood This Side of Heaven.” He said, “Of course, and as you well know, words aren’t the only area where I’m masterful. But, for the time being, we can start with some crab cakes, French fries, lobster and—if they’re really the best place this side of heaven – excellent collard greens. Are you ready?”
Tanae squeezed Peyton’s hand. “I’m sorry I ruined our weekend.”
Peyton shook his head. “Naw, baby girl. We just got started.”