In the Dark of the Night (2 page)

“Show up?” Merrill repeated. “What are you talking about?”

Kent glanced from his own mother to Eric’s, then back to his own, and it was finally Ellen who answered.

“It’s no big deal,” she said. “The house has been tied up for years because the owner simply vanished.” As Merrill started to say something, Ellen held up a hand. “Merrill, I’m telling you, it’s nothing for you even to think about. It’s just that the owner’s boat washed up on shore one morning years ago, and the assumption has always been that Dr. Darby—he owned Pinecrest—had gone out fishing and fallen overboard. But since they never found his body, they’ve just had to wait to have him declared legally dead. It’s not like he was murdered, or even died in the house or anything like that. So before you start getting all panicky—”

Her words were cut off by the beep of the computer announcing incoming e-mail, and a moment later all four people in the Newells’ kitchen were staring at the message from Dan Brewster:

Just called Rita Henderson and took the house. Start packing—we go up the 17th. And I reserved a table for ten at Le Poulet Rouge at 7:30, so call the Sparkses. Might as well celebrate. See you in a couple of hours.

—Dan

Merrill read the message twice.

So the deal was done—Dan had taken the house.

Eric and Kent were high-fiving each other, Ellen was grinning like a Cheshire cat, and Merrill supposed she should be as happy as everyone else. But even as she told herself it was going to be a wonderful summer, all she could think about was what had happened to the house’s owner.

There had to be something else.

Something Ellen wasn’t telling her.

People didn’t just disappear.

                  

M
ERRILL BREWSTER TRIED
to concentrate on what Ashley Sparks was saying, but despite the fact that everyone else at the table seemed to think the summer festivities had already begun, her irritation with Dan for renting the house without consulting her was a distraction.

And the irritation itself was fast congealing into a dark anger. What had he been thinking of? She
never
would have taken a house without consulting him!

Dan himself was at one end of the long table, talking golf with Kevin Sparks and Jeff Newell; the three boys had their heads together at the other end of the table; and she was seated in the middle with Marci, Ellen, and Ashley. The division of the genders, she thought. Just like it will be all summer. Ashley had her appointment book open and was talking about the four “girls” taking a day trip from Phantom Lake up into Door County for a binge of antiquing. Merrill made herself smile, nodded, and agreed that that would be fun.

The problem, though, was that she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to leave her own house for the whole summer, and here the rest of them were already planning getaways from their rentals. Is it possible that I’m already homesick? she wondered. But it wasn’t just some kind of silly before-the-fact homesickness. She loved her home, loved watching it through the seasons, loved watching the ever-changing gardens she’d spent years planning.

And spending most of every summer executing the new plans she’d made for the garden over the winter.

But this summer she’d have to sit and stare at the lake.

Read exactly the kind of trashy romance novels she hated.

Go shopping with the girls, which she didn’t hate at all.

Relax.

It all sounded great in theory, but if it was really going to be that great, why wasn’t she looking forward to it?

“Okay, Merrill,” she heard Ashley Sparks say, as she put her pen and book aside, folded her arms across her chest, and gazed darkly across the table. “Give. Start with the list of worries, so we can all get it behind us.”

Merrill flushed, forced herself to grin, and quickly searched her mind for something other than the truth. “Okay,” she finally said, “how’s this for starters: Is there a good grocery store up there? A pharmacy? A clinic in case somebody gets hurt?”

“And an ambulance!” Ellen Newell chimed in. “Don’t forget an ambulance.”

As everyone at the table started laughing, Jeff Newell chimed in from the far end: “And a hearse, too! Might as well prepare for every eventuality.”

“They’ve got it all,” Ashley said. “It’s not the wilderness, Merrill. Phantom Lake is a whole town, for heaven’s sake.”

“They’ve got a great health food store,” Ellen offered.

Jeff Newell’s voice rose above his wife’s. “If Dan weren’t so cheap, the Brewsters would have joined us at the lake years ago. However, better late than never, I say.” He raised his wineglass. “Here’s to watching Merrill learn to water-ski.” Everyone laughed, and Merrill felt her face burn as she realized they all knew there wasn’t a chance in the world that she’d risk breaking her neck behind a speeding boat. Even Marci was grinning at her.

“Well, maybe I’ll surprise all of you,” she said, deciding it was better to go along with the joke than get upset. “I could water-ski!” As the laughter at the table grew louder, she added four more words: “When hell freezes over!”

“Well, I think a summer at Phantom Lake will be good for you,” Ashley Sparks said when the laughter finally died away. “Maybe you’ll finally realize that ninety-nine percent of the things you worry about never happen.”

“But they might,” Ellen declared in a voice that almost perfectly mimicked Merrill’s.

Merrill waited until the latest wave of laughter started to die, then held up her hand. “It’s not just the waterskiing,” she said. “What about the plumbing? What about the electricity? My God, we could all drown in darkness, without even any water to put out an electrical fire. Don’t you people think about
anything
?” She leaned back in her chair and smiled. “There! Did I leave anything out?”

“Actually, Pinecrest is probably the solidest house—” Kevin Sparks began, but his wife silenced him.

“She was joking, Kevin!
Joking!

“But he’s right,” Ellen Newell said. “Rita Henderson isn’t going to rent a house that isn’t in perfect condition.”

“Any house that’s been empty that long has to have something wrong with it,” Merrill began. “Empty houses—”

“Aren’t always abandoned houses,” Ellen Newell cut in.

“It’ll work, hon,” Dan said, seeing the uncertainty in his wife’s eyes. “Jeff and Kevin and I are going to share a float plane and fly up on weekends.”

“A plane?” Eric said. “Cool! Can I learn to fly it?”

“Maybe,” his father replied in a tone that said no.

And Dan will be alone at home in Evanston all week, Merrill thought, and nobody will be there to clean up after him, and—and I’m being an idiot! she silently declared, breaking into her own thoughts. They’re all right. I worry too much about too many things, and it’s going to be a great summer, and that’s that.

As the waiter came over to take their orders, she raised her glass. “To all of us,” she said. “To all of us, and to Phantom Lake, and to a perfect summer.” As everyone started to put their glasses to their lips, she added, “And one more thing—to all of you telling me when I’m worrying about nothing and making mountains out of molehills and trying to protect everyone from everything. This summer, I intend to stop worrying and have a great time.”

As everyone clinked their glasses and drank their wine, Merrill decided that maybe the words she’d just uttered in an act of pure bravado weren’t as false as they’d sounded to her. Maybe, after all, everything was going to be okay.

Except that so far no one had been able to tell her why Pinecrest’s owner had disappeared.

Disappeared without a trace.

As she turned her attention to the menu, all the brave words of a moment ago once again rang as hollow as when she’d first uttered them.

D
AN BREWSTER CLICKED
off the late news, but instead of rising out of his favorite chair immediately, he sat in the dark for a moment, wondering if there was any way of avoiding the anger he’d felt simmering in his wife from the moment he came home that day. But of course there wasn’t, and she was right—he shouldn’t have taken the house without even consulting her. Still, he wasn’t totally in the wrong, either, since he’d assumed when she forwarded him the e-mail that the house was fine with her. But the house wasn’t the real problem anyway. The real problem was his wife’s fear of practically everything, and she didn’t seem to be getting any better. In fact, she seemed to be getting worse, and he was starting to wonder if she might be turning into the kind of agoraphobic who’d wind up never leaving her house.

Deciding he might as well face the music, he heaved himself out of his chair and moved slowly through the house, turning off the lights and rechecking every door in what had become a habitual response to his wife’s paranoia. Except it’s not paranoia, he silently corrected himself. She just worries too much.

He climbed the stairs and paused in front of Eric’s door, listening to the tapping of his son’s keyboard for a moment before rapping on the door, then opening it. “Good night, sport,” he said. “Don’t be up too late, okay?”

“I’m just online with Kent and Tad,” Eric replied, barely glancing away from the glowing monitor on his desk.

“Who you just saw at the restaurant,” Dan observed.

“So?” Eric countered, finally grinning at his father. “What’s that got to do with it? We’re talking about going to the lake.”

Dan didn’t bother to point out that for the last several hours Eric and his friends had been discussing exactly that topic in person. “Okay, then. Sleep well.”

But Eric had already gone back to his computer, offering only a distracted “’Night” as Dan quietly closed his door.

Across the hall a pink glow from Marci’s bedside lamp shone through his daughter’s partially open door, and Dan pushed gently on it to see his wife sitting on the edge of Marci’s bed.

Tippy, the orange tabby who had adopted Marci three years ago, was nestled under Marci’s arm, and Moxie, the West Highland terrier who was supposed to be Eric’s dog but had fallen in unrequited love with Tippy the day the cat had appeared, was stretched between Marci’s legs, his eyes fixed adoringly on the cat.

Though both animals ignored him, at least Marci seemed pleased to see him.

“Hi, Daddy.”

“Hi, yourself, sweetheart.”

“Can we take Tippy and Moxie to the lake?”

“Of course.” He moved closer to the bed, standing next to Merrill, and put a hand on her shoulder, but pulled it away when he felt her body stiffen. “The whole family’s going. Even Marguerite.”

Marci grinned happily, and Merrill smoothed a lock of hair from the little girl’s forehead, then kissed her. “Okay, now. To sleep with all three of you.”

Dan bent over and kissed his daughter, too. “Sweet dreams,” he said, clicking off her bedside lamp.

“’Night, Daddy,” Marci said. “Leave the door open a little bit, okay?”

Dan followed Merrill out of the room and carefully left the door open just enough to leave a reassuring shaft of light running across Marci’s floor.

And then, in their bedroom, his wife finally released the anger he’d felt her bottling up all evening.

“I can’t believe you rented that house without even consulting me,” she said as the latch on their door clicked closed.

Dan put his arms around her and brought her close, feeling her anger in the wooden unresponsiveness of her body. “Come on, honey,” he said, using the soothing tone he’d often used to turn a jury that was about to rightly convict one of his clients. “Let’s talk about what this is really all about, okay?”

“It’s about you renting a house without—” Merrill began, but Dan pressed a gentle forefinger against her lips, silencing her.

“Now, come on,” he went on. “Be fair, honey. We’ve all been wanting to rent a summer place for years, but you’ve been nervous about it. So we’ve stayed home. But this year you need to put your fears aside—by next summer, Eric will be working and getting ready to go to college, and if we’re ever going to do this as a family, it’s now or never.”

He felt her freeze, but then, slowly, her hands reached around his back, and then she was hugging him tightly, pressing herself against him. “You’re right,” she whispered. “I know you’re right. But it’s so hard for me.”

“I know.” His fingers gently stroked the hollow of her back, just where she liked it. “But you want to be a trouper, don’t you?”

She leaned back and looked at him, a twinkle in her eye. “I’m still mad at you,” she said.

“I know you are,” he said, and kissed her.

“You better stop that,” she whispered, wriggling closer to him in a manner that belied her words.

Later, as they lay cuddled in bed, Merrill could tell by Dan’s breathing that he was on the verge of sleep. “Honey?” she said.

He shifted his weight. “Hmmm?”

“Tell me everything’s going to be all right.”

He pulled her closer, brought her head to his shoulder, and stroked her hair. “It’s going to be better than all right,” he whispered. “It’s going to be great.”

And finally, with her husband’s arms wrapped around her, Merrill put her fears aside.

Yet even when the clock downstairs softly struck three, she hadn’t quite drifted into the easy sleep everyone else seemed to find with no trouble at all.

It’s me, she decided. It’s just the way I am, but I have to get over it. I’m not going to let it spoil the summer. Not for me, and not for my children. For once, I’m not going to be afraid of everything I see.

And finally, as the clock struck three-thirty, she slept.

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