The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda
I almost went back for her. When she didn’t show. When she didn’t answer her phone. When she didn’t reply to my text.
But there were the drinks, and the cars blocking me in, and the responsibility—I was supposed to be keeping an eye on things. I was expected to keep the night running smoothly.
Anyway, she would laugh at me for coming back. Roll her eyes. Say, I already have one mother, Avery.
These are excuses, I know.
I HAD ARRIVED AT the overlook first.
The party was at the rental on the cul-de-sac this year, a three-bedroom house at the end of a long tree-lined road, barely enough room for two cars to maneuver at the same time. The Lomans had named it Blue Robin, for the pale blue clapboard siding and the way the squared roof looked like the top of a bird feeder. Though I thought it was more fitting for the way it was set back in the trees, a flash of color as you stepped to the side, something you couldn’t really see until you were already upon it.
It wasn’t the nicest location or the one with the best view—too far to see the ocean, just close enough to hear—but it was the farthest from the bed-and-breakfast down the road, and the patio was surrounded by tightly packed evergreens, so hopefully, no one would notice or complain.
The Lomans’ summer rentals all looked the same on the inside, anyway, so that sometimes I’d leave a walk-through completely disoriented: a porch swing in place of the stone steps; the ocean instead of the mountains. Each home had the same tiled floor, the same shade of granite, the same style of rustic-meets-upscale. And the walls throughout, decorated with scenes of Littleport: the lighthouse, the white masts dancing in the harbor, the foam-crested waves colliding with the sea cliffs on either side. A drowned coast, it was called—fingers of land rising from the ocean, the rocky coastline trying to stand its ground against the surf, islands appearing and vanishing in the distance with the tide.
I got it, I did. Why the long weekend drives from the cities or the temporary relocation for the summer season; why the exclusivity of a place that seemed so small and unassuming. It was a town carved out of the untouched wild, mountains on one side, ocean on the other, accessible only by a single coastal road and patience. It existed through pure stubbornness, pushing back against nature from both sides.
Growing up here made you feel as if you were forged from this same character.
I emptied the box of leftover liquor from the main house onto the granite island, hid away the fragile decorations, turned on the pool lights. Then I poured myself a drink and sat on the back patio, listening to the sounds of the ocean. A chill of autumn wind moved through the trees, and I shivered, pulling my jacket tighter.
This annual party always teetered on the edge of something—one last fight against the turning of the season. Winter settled in the bones here, dark and endless. It was coming, just as soon as the visitors were leaving.
But first there would be this.
Another wave crashed in the distance. I closed my eyes, counting the seconds. Waiting.
We were here tonight to ring out the summer season, but it had already swept out to sea without our permission.
LUCIANA ARRIVED JUST AS the party was hitting its momentum. I didn’t see her come in, but she stood alone in the kitchen, unsure of herself. She stood out, tall and unmoving in the hub of activity, taking it all in. Her first Plus-One party. So different, I knew, from the parties she’d been attending all summer, her welcome to the world of Summers in Littleport, Maine.
I touched her elbow, still cold somehow. She flinched as she turned my way, then exhaled like she was glad to see me. “This is not exactly what I expected,” she said.
She was too done up for the occasion. Hair curled just so, tailored pants, heels. Like she was attending a brunch.
I smiled. “Is Sadie with you?” I looked around the room for the familiar dark blond hair parted down the middle, the thin braids woven from her temples and clipped together at the back, a child from another era. I stood on my toes, trying to tune in to the sound of her laughter.
Luce shook her head, the dark waves slipping over her shoulders. “No, I think she was still packing. Parker dropped me off. Said he wanted to leave the car at the bed-and-breakfast so we could get out easier after.” She gestured in the general direction of the Point Bed-and-Breakfast, a converted Victorian eight-bedroom home at the tip of the overlook, complete with multiple turrets and a widow’s walk. There, you could almost make out the entirety of Littleport—all the parts that mattered, anyway—from the harbor to the sandy strip of Breaker Beach, its bluffs jutting out into the sea, where the Lomans lived at the northern edge of town.
“He shouldn’t park there,” I said, phone already in my hand. So much for the owners of the B&B not noticing if people were going to start leaving cars in their lot.
Luce shrugged. Parker Loman did what Parker Loman wanted to do, never worrying about the repercussions.
I held the phone to my ear. I could barely hear the ringing over the music and cupped a hand over the other side.
Hi, you’ve reached Sadie Loman—
I pressed end, slid the phone back into my pocket, then handed Luce a red plastic cup. “Here,” I said. What I really wanted to say was, My God, take a breath, relax, but this was already exceeding the typical limits of my conversations with Luciana Suarez. She held the cup tentatively as I moved the half-empty bottles around, looking for the whiskey I knew she preferred. It was one thing I really liked about her.
After I poured, she frowned and said, “Thanks.”
A full season together and she still didn’t know what to make of me, the woman living in the guesthouse beside her boyfriend’s summer home. Friend or foe. Ally or antagonist.
Then she seemed to decide on something, because she leaned a little closer, as if getting ready to share a secret. “I still don’t really get it.”
I grinned. “You’ll see.” She’d been questioning the Plus-One party since Parker and Sadie told her about it; told her they wouldn’t be leaving with their parents on Labor Day weekend but would be staying until the week after the end of the season for this. One last night for the people who stayed from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the weeks making up the summer season, plus one. Spilling over into the lives of the folks who lived here year-round.
Unlike the parties the Lomans had taken her to all summer, this party would have no caterers, no hostesses, no bartenders. In their place would be an assortment of leftovers from the visitors emptying the liquor cabinets, the fridges, the pantries. Nothing matched. Nothing had a place. It was a night of excess, a long goodbye, nine months to forget and to hope that others had, too.
The Plus-One party was both exclusive and not. There was no guest list. If you heard about it, you were in. The adults with real responsibilities had all gone back to their normal lives by now. The younger kids had returned to school, and their parents had left along with them. So this fell to the midgap. College age and up, before the commitments of life kept you back. Until things like this wore you thin.
Tonight circumstances leveled us out, and you couldn’t tell just from looking who was a resident and who was a visitor. We pretended that: Strip us down and we’re all the same.
Luce checked her fine gold watch twice in as many minutes, twisting it back and forth over the bone of her wrist each time. “God,” she said, “he’s taking forever.”
PARKER ARRIVED LAST, HIS gaze seeking us out easily from the doorway. All heads turned his way, as often happened when Parker Loman entered the room. It was the way he carried himself, an aloofness he’d perfected, designed to keep everyone on their toes.
“They’re going to notice the car,” I said when he joined us.
He leaned down and slipped an arm around Luce. “You worry too much, Avery.”
I did, but it was only because he’d never considered how he appeared to the other side—the residents who lived here, who both needed and resented people like him.
“Where’s Sadie?” I asked over the music.
“I thought she was getting a ride with you.” He shrugged, then looked somewhere over my shoulder. “She told me not to wait for her earlier. Guess that was Sadie-speak for not coming.”
I shook my head. Sadie hadn’t missed a Plus-One in all the years we started attending them together, the summer we were eighteen.
Earlier in the day, she’d thrown open the door to the guesthouse without knocking, called my name from the front room, then again even as she entered my bedroom, where I sat with the laptop open on the white comforter, in my pajama shorts and long-sleeve thermal with my hair in a bun on top of my head.
She was already dressed for the day, whereas I was catching up on my responsibilities for Grant Loman’s property management company, one thread of his massive real estate development firm. Sadie, wearing a blue slip dress and gold strappy sandals, had leaned on her hip so I could see the jut of her bone, and said, What do we think of this? The dress clung to every line and curve.
I’d reclined against my pillows, bent my knees, thinking she was going to stay. You know you’ll freeze, right? I’d said. The temperature had plummeted the last few evenings—a precursor to the abandoning, as the locals called it. In a week, the restaurants and shops along Harbor Drive would change hours, while the landscapers became school maintenance personnel and bus drivers, and the kids who worked as waitresses and deckhands took off for the slopes in New Hampshire to work as ski instructors. The rest of us were accustomed to sucking the summer dry, as if stockpiling water before a drought.
Sadie had rolled her eyes. I already have one mother, she’d said, but she’d pieced through my closet and shrugged on a chocolate brown sweater, which had been hers anyway. It turned her outfit into the perfect blend of dressy and casual. Effortless. She’d spun toward the door, her fingers restless in the ends of her hair, her energy spilling over.
What else could she have been getting ready for if not this?
Through the open patio doors, I noticed Connor sitting at the edge of the pool, his jeans rolled up and his bare feet dangling in the water, glowing blue from the light below. I almost walked up to him and asked if he’d seen her, but that was only because drinking opened up a sense of nostalgia in me. Even then, I thought better of it. He caught me staring, and I turned away. I hadn’t expected to see him here, was all.
I pulled out my phone, sent her a text: Where are you?
I was still watching the screen when I saw the dots indicating she was writing a response. Then they stopped, but no message came through.
I sent one more: ???
No response. I stared at the screen for another minute before slipping the phone away again, assuming she was on her way, despite Parker’s claim.
Someone in the kitchen was dancing. Parker tipped his head back and laughed. The magic was happening.
There was a hand on my back, and I closed my eyes, leaning in to it, becoming someone else.
It’s how these things go.
BY MIDNIGHT, EVERYTHING HAD turned fragmented and hazy, the room thick with heat and laughter despite the open patio doors. Parker caught my gaze over the crowd from just inside the patio exit, tipped his head slightly toward the front door. Warning me.
I followed his eyes. There were two police officers standing in the open doorway, the cold air sobering us as the gust funneled from the entrance out the back doors. Neither man had a hat on, as if they were trying to blend in. I already knew this would fall to me.
The house was in the Lomans’ name, but I was listed as the property manager. More important, I was the one expected to navigate the two worlds here, like I belonged to both, when really I was a member of neither.
I recognized the two men but not well enough to pull their names from memory. Without the summer visitors, Littleport had a population of just under three thousand. It was clear they recognized me, too. I’d spent the year between ages eighteen and nineteen in and out of trouble, and the officers were old enough to remember that time.
I didn’t wait to hear their complaint. “I’m sorry,” I said, making sure my voice was steady and firm. “I’ll make sure we keep the noise level down.” Already, I was gesturing to no one in particular to lower the volume.
But the officers didn’t acknowledge my apology. “We’re looking for Parker Loman,” the shorter of the two said, scanning the crowd. I turned toward Parker, who had already begun pushing through the crowd in our direction.
“Parker Loman?” the taller officer said when he was within earshot. Of course they knew it was him.
Parker nodded, his back straight. “What can I do for you gentlemen,” he said, becoming business Parker even as a piece of dark hair fell into his eyes; the sheen of sweat made his face glow brighter.
“We need to speak with you outside,” the taller man said, and Parker, ever the appeaser, knew the line to walk.
“Of course,” he said, not moving any closer. “Can you tell me what this is about first?” He also knew when to talk and when to demand a lawyer. He already had his phone in his hand.
“Your sister,” the officer said, and the shorter man’s gaze slipped to the side. “Sadie.” He gestured Parker closer, lowering his voice so I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but everything shifted. The way Parker was standing, his expression, the phone hanging limply at his side. I stepped closer, something fluttering in my chest. I caught the end of the exchange. “What was she wearing, last time you saw her?” the officer asked.
Parker narrowed his eyes. “I don’t . . .” He looked at the room behind him, seeming to expect that she’d slipped inside without either of us noticing.
I didn’t understand the question, but I knew the answer. “A blue dress,” I said. “Brown sweater. Gold sandals.”
The men in uniform shared a quick look, then stepped aside, allowing me into their group. “Any identifying marks?”
Parker pressed his eyes shut. “Wait,” he said, like he could redirect the conversation, alter the inevitable course of events to follow.
“Yes, she does, right?” Luce said. I hadn’t noticed her standing there; she was just beyond Parker’s shoulder. Her hair was pulled back and her makeup had started to run, faint circles under her eyes. Luce stepped forward, her gaze darting between Parker and me. She nodded, more sure of herself. “A tattoo,” she said. “Right here.” She pointed to the spot on her own body, just on the inside of her left hip bone. Her finger traced the shape of a figure eight turned on its side—the symbol of infinity.
The cop’s jaw tensed, and that was when the bottom fell away in a rush.
We had become temporarily unmoored, small boats in the ocean, and I sensed that seasick feeling I could never quite overcome out on the water at night, despite growing up so close to the coast. A disorienting darkness with no frame of reference.
The taller cop had a hand on Parker’s arm. “Your sister was found on Breaker Beach . . .”
The room buzzed, and Luce’s hands went to her mouth, but I still wasn’t sure what they were saying. What Sadie was doing on Breaker Beach. I pictured her dancing, barefoot. Skinny-dipping in the ice-cold water on a dare. Her face lit up from the glow of a bonfire we’d made from driftwood.
Behind us, half the party continued, but the noise was dropping. The music, cut.
“Call your parents,” the officer continued. “We need you to come down to the station.”
“No,” I said, “she’s . . .” Packing. Getting ready. On her way. The cop’s eyes widened, and he looked down at my hands. They were gripping the edge of his sleeve, my fingertips blanched white.
I released him, backed up a step, bumped into another body. The dots on my phone—she had been writing to me. The cops had to be wrong. I pulled out my phone to check. But my question marks to Sadie remained unacknowledged.
Parker pushed past the men, charging out the front door, disappearing around the back of the house, headed down the path toward the B&B. In the commotion, you couldn’t contain us. Luce and I sprinted after him through the trees, eventually catching up in the gravel parking lot, pushing into his car.
The only noise as we drove past the dark storefronts lining Harbor Drive was the periodic hitch in Luce’s breath. I leaned closer to the window when we reached the curve leading to Breaker Beach, the lights flashing ahead, the police cars blocking the entrance to the lot. But an officer stood guard behind the dunes, gesturing with a glowing stick for us to drive on by.
Parker didn’t even slow down. He took the car up the incline of Landing Lane to the house at the end of the street, standing dark behind the stone-edged drive.
Parker stopped the car and went straight inside—either to check for Sadie, also disbelieving, or to call his parents in privacy. Luce followed him slowly up the front steps, but she looked over her shoulder first, at me.
I stumbled around the corner of the house, my hand on the siding to steady myself, passing the black gate surrounding the pool, heading straight for the cliff path beyond. The path traced the edge of the bluffs until they ended abruptly at the northern tip of Breaker Beach. But there was a set of steps cut into the rock from there, leading down to the sand.
I wanted to see the beach for myself, to believe. See what the police were doing down below. See if Sadie was arguing with them. If we had misunderstood. Even though I knew better by then. This place, it took people from me. And I had grown complacent in forgetting that.
I could hear the crash of the waves colliding with the cliffs to my left, could picture the way the force of the water foamed in the daylight. But everything was dark, and I moved by sound alone. In the distance, the lighthouse beyond the Point flashed periodically as the light circled, and I headed toward it in a daze.
There was movement just ahead in the dark, farther down the cliff path. A flashlight shining in my direction so I had to raise an arm to block my eyes. The shadow of a man walked toward me, his walkie-talkie crackling. “Ma’am, you can’t be out here,” he said.
The flashlight swung back, and that was when I saw them, a glint caught in the beam of light. I felt the earth tilting.
A familiar pair of gold strappy sandals, kicked off just before the edge of the rocks.