By Gwen E. Kirby
Featured Art: Fisherman’s Cottage by Harald Sohlberg, 1906
We see him first at the reservoir, a middle-aged man with an oval of fur on his chest, nipples like button eyes, and blue swim trunks with yellow Hawaiian flowers. We are swimming, and he regards us from the shore in that way we are learning to expect from a certain kind of man.
Like every day in Tennessee, it is hot, and in the early afternoon, we walk from the stone campus of this small college to the lake. We are at a summer music camp, our fingertips sore from strings, our backs sticky with sweat, and when we reach the lake we shed our summer dresses and leap from a boulder into the water, which is deep and clean. Around the lake, tall pines and the heavy hum of Southern bug life. We float on our backs, conscious of how our breasts protrude from the water, pleased that we are sixteen, except for Caisa who is seventeen and over-proud of it. For her birthday, she buzzed her head. Her cheekbones are sharp and high, and even if she were not older, she would be our leader because she walks with confidence and draws checkers on the white rubber of her Converse in ballpoint pen, cheap ink that shimmers like oilslick. We wish we could go home and buzz our heads, draw on our shoes, but our faces are round, we like our sneakers white, we like our mothers happy.
The man doesn’t jump into the water. He walks down the wooden stairs to the dock, sits, then eases himself into the water as if it pains him. Though we don’t say anything, we cease floating on our backs, tucking ourselves under the surface, our heads and shoulders bobbing in a circle.
“It’s like, what is he doing here?” Becca says, and we nod. We watch from the corners of our eyes as he swims the edge of the lake. Though we are the outsiders, we resent him. Today this is our lake, and we are loud and selfish. When we walk down sidewalks, we take up the entire path.
“Shouldn’t he be at work?” Megan says.
“Maybe we should go,” Lisa says, but no one agrees. Lisa is timid. Lisa braids her blonde hair so tight her skull stretches her skin.
When Caisa gets bored of watching the man, she declares that we are going to take over the floating dock. She wants to sunbathe. We swim over and one by one go up the metal ladder, the rungs slick on our feet, water sluicing down our limbs. It is so warm that we don’t even shiver. We deliberately don’t check to see if the man is looking at us, though he must be, because we are young and nearly naked in our triangle-top bikinis and our bodies are powerful in at least this one way, that they contain—exude—something which is desired.
We lie side by side. We know we’ll burn.
“It’s hot,” says Lisa.
“Who do you think the trumpet player would fuck? If he had to,” says Megan.
“Not you,” says Caisa.
“I walked in on my parents having sex once,” says Becca.
We giggle, uncomfortable and a little proud. We have all done this. It is the only time our mere presence has struck our parents dumb.
With our eyes closed, we smell the algae on the wood, we smell the sunlight and it makes our noses itch. We feel the dock dip and like that the man’s shadow is over us. He stands on the top rung of the ladder. He is old, at least in his forties, with a body that reminds us of our fathers’ bodies, a drum belly perched on skinny calves.
“You ladies from that music camp?” he asks.
We think about sitting up, but we are conscious of our stomachs, skin that will pooch and crease. We feel the wisdom of deer, who know how to remain perfectly still.
“I’ve seen a bunch of you. You’re everywhere in those name tags.”
Caisa rises to her elbows.
“Your parents make you come to this camp? What instruments do you play?”
“Violin,” says Megan.
“Viola,” says Lisa.
“Cello,” says Becca.
“Harp,” says Caisa, but that’s not true and we feel stupid because we’ve forgotten that we can be anyone here, play make-believe, slip in and out of fantasies; we don’t owe anyone the truth. Though we want more, we tinker only with our smallest dreams, tiny corrections to our hair and personalities. Megan pretends to be cynical. Becca pretends everything is funny. Lisa pretends she’d rather be with us than be alone. Caisa need not pretend, we think, but she lies most easily of all.
“Where y’all from?” the man asks, and we are quick learners.
“Florida,” says Megan from Maine.
“New York,” says Lisa from Oregon.
“Paris,” says Becca from Los Angeles, and we feel she’s overdone it.
“Nashville,” says Caisa from Florida.
“Local girl,” says the man, and Caisa smiles.
Through his wet swim trunks, we think we can see the impression of his dick, a soft fruit, though it may just be how the fabric is bunching. We shouldn’t be looking at what we don’t want to see, but we can’t help ourselves, and once we look, we feel certain he’s noticed. We fear we have agreed to something and we want to look again.
“You’re beautiful young things,” he says.
“We have class soon,” Caisa says.
“School’s important,” the man says and smiles like he’s said something else.
“You girls have a good one.” With that, he lowers himself back into the water.
We are silent as he swims away.
“What a creep,” Becca says.
“Totally gross,” Megan says.
Caisa pulls her arms over her head and stretches, as if she still owns her skin. When we stand, we leave wet prints of our bodies on the wood.
We tell the others at camp about the creepy man. We are not the least popular, but we are not the most popular, and our story gives us stature. We are like birds who, hearing a footfall, call out, pass their fear from tree to tree. Or—what other animal passes on the call of danger with pleasure? With every telling, the man becomes more pathetic, and we laugh until we feel almost sorry for him.
Two days later, it is almost curfew. We hurry home from the library, cutting across quadrangles as the clouds blow fast across the sky and the wind warms our legs like a panting dog. Under our feet, the ground is saturated from a day of rain. Pine needles and fallen leaves smell dark, fecund, when we kick them up. Mosquitoes bite us. Our arms collect scratches from when the itch becomes too much. Lisa already has thin scars on her inner thighs, raised and orderly. We do not mention them.
We don’t see the man until we are too close to turn around. He’s sitting on the low stone wall outside the dorm, his hairy legs kicked out, blocking the sidewalk.
Megan taps Caisa, who taps Becca, who taps Lisa, who pinches her face.
Here is the secret that everyone knows: We are easy to frighten. We have seen the videos about stranger-danger, friend-danger, and boyfriend-danger. Husband-danger and father-danger. But we are proud. More important, we don’t want to be the one who fails us all by running away.
The man tips his baseball hat. “Storms moving through,” he says. His beard is a shadow on his face. We look to the sky, to check if there is some explanation there, something he has come here to show us. But it’s just the same clouds, the same shifting patchwork of stars. “We’ll get more rain before it stops for good,” he says.
We wear our silence as a shield.
He chuckles and stands, still in our way. “I’ve never seen a girl with one of these,” he says, and we realize he is talking to Caisa. He runs his hand over her buzzed head, his thumb just grazing her ear, and even Caisa seems too surprised to respond. “Suits you,” he says, and then he moves aside, just enough so that we can pass him in a single file line. The last one into the dorm pulls the door shut and keeps pulling, though we’ve already heard the lock catch.
In our shared suite after lights-out, we play our fear, turning it in our hands, finding its chords. The air-conditioning blasts and the sweat on our backs is cold.
“I think he’s still out there,” Megan says. She sits cross-legged. Next to her on the bed, Lisa leans against the wall, rolling a wooden whistle, a carving of a tortoise, over and over in her hands.
“We should tell someone,” Lisa says.
“Loitering is a crime,” Becca says. “You can’t just loiter wherever you want.”
“I’m sure he’s still out there. Can’t you feel it?” We can feel it. We are sure he is still out there. “Should I look out the window?” Megan asks.
“He’ll see you,” Lisa says.
“I don’t care,” Megan says, but she doesn’t get up. From the beds, we can see the tree outside the window, lit from below by a yellow street light. We are glad our room is on the third floor and that the man is too large to climb the tree’s delicate limbs.
“He could be a serial killer,” Becca says.
We sit with this. In our imaginations, he murders the girls who have come before us, one group each summer, at first flautists, because they are the prettiest, until he realizes that oboists are trusting and bassists have the biggest instrument cases, perfect to fill with rocks. He ties the heavy black cases to their limp ankles; the girls won’t float when he throws their bodies into the deep lake. We imagine he has a basement full of instruments now, his own hidden orchestra.
“Back in my home town,” Megan says, “there was this guy who lived in a cabin. He lived there with his wife, but one fall she died in a car accident, T-boned by this cheerleader, chick drunk as all fuck when she did it. So he was all alone through the winter. And the winter is long in Maine. Like real long. Everyone in town wonders if he’s dead or lost his mind, and after the first thaw the sheriff goes to check. When the sheriff drives back, he doesn’t say a word, packs up his bags, and leaves town. Then the diner owner, a man with thick arms, goes to the cabin. He comes back and tells his wife and daughters they are moving to New Mexico, where he’s heard life is easier. No one else goes out there, not for months, until one night, two cheerleaders do it on a dare, or because they’re stupid, I’m not sure. They get to the cabin. There’s a faint light on inside. They creep up the steps in their tiny cheerleader skirts and tiny cheerleader tops, and when they open the door, they see the man sitting at his table, normal as you like, doing a crossword puzzle. Hey, they say, and when he turns to them, they see that he’s missing the skin over half his face, the flesh over half his ribs, his left arm rotting away. He’d been eating himself, bit by bit, all winter. And when he sees their uniforms, he grabs them and ties them up and devours them piece by piece all through the next winter!” Megan yells the last part as she grabs Lisa, who shrieks.
“That isn’t funny,” Lisa says.
“That is the worst ghost story I ever heard,” Becca says.
“That guy’s wife really was killed by a cheerleader,” Megan says. “But at the end of the winter he was just skinny.”
We feel sad imagining this man, but mostly we feel the romance of his suffering, how much he must have loved his wife, how much we want a man to suffer for love of us. “The first football game that next fall,” Megan says, “he put arsenic in the Gatorade cooler. Football players and cheerleaders all dropped dead, pom-poms, orange paper cups, and bodies scattered on the sideline.”
“You are so full of shit,” Becca says, but she doesn’t sound sure.
“Think what you want,” Megan says.
Caisa lies with her legs up the wall. “You think he’s smart, or is he stupid?” she says, as if we haven’t been speaking at all. “Our guy. That makes all the difference.”
Stupid seems better, because we are smart. But if we’re so smart, perhaps we can think most like the smart man. The stupid man—what to expect? The stupid man, as we imagine him, is slow and plodding but carries a cleaver and breaks down the door in the night, his act so senseless that we have no defense. We shiver, and as if we’ve called him, a pebble raps against the window, the sound short and sharp, and just as we begin to think it’s nothing, something strikes the glass again. Lisa begins to cry. Not loud. We know bad things have happened to Lisa.
“Do you think that’s him?” Becca whispers, as if he can hear us.
“Who else would it be?” Megan says.
“We have to tell someone,” Becca says. “I’m not joking, you guys. We have to tell a counselor.”
“What do you think a counselor will do?” Caisa asks. Her question is genuine. She sits up, calm, curious.
“Call the police,” Becca says. We nod.
“I bet, if we call, he gets away with it,” Caisa says. “I bet he does this all the time. I bet he says he wasn’t doing anything wrong. I bet he says we’re hysterical. I bet he says we’re looking for attention.”
We bet he has a girlfriend somewhere. We bet he treats her badly. We bet she doesn’t leave him. We bet he is friends with some of the local cops. We bet he drinks beer with them. We bet he beats his wife. We bet his son hates him. We bet his son will be like him. We bet he has been arrested but never charged. We bet he is lonely. We bet he is both smart and stupid. We bet he knows how to spike a girl’s drink. We bet we know how this story will end.
We will walk out of our dorm room and sneak down the dark hall.
We will go to the kitchen, where a week ago we made potato salad for the Fourth of July. In a drawer are the large knives; when we used them, they stuck in the wet starch, the potato half-cleaved. We will each take a knife. The handles will be black with silver studs, cool in our palms, just like our mothers’ knives. When we think about our mothers, we will be angry with them.
We will look outside at the sidewalk, but the man won’t be there.
We will leave the dorm, circle it, but we won’t find him.
We will walk away from the dorm, down the middle of the road that leads into town. We won’t hurry. We know he will follow. Our bodies will bring him to us, our breasts and our hips, the scents under our arms and between our legs. When we hear him, his footsteps behind us on the asphalt, we’ll pretend we don’t. Instead, we will look to the sky and see that the rain he promised has not come. We will smile to see the clouds gone and our smiles will bare our teeth and we will feel our anger well up from our bones, a pressure beneath our skin that feels like power, anxious and hot, and we will hold this heat inside of us until he is close enough that we smell him too, gun powder and exhaust. The first sound he hears will be Becca’s laughter, as she realizes that what we feel is joy, and when we turn to face him, our hair will burst into flames and we will light up the empty road, our fire glinting off our knives, and we will see that we have struck him dumb, that he feels fear but more important, awe, and when we stab him he will give like an orange: a little resistance from the peel, but the flesh inside easy to divvy up, a bitter piece for each of us.
Gwen E. Kirby’s stories appear or are forthcoming in One Story, Tin House, Guernica, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. Her short story collection, Shit Cassandra Saw, is forthcoming from Penguin Books.
Originally appeared in NOR 20.