“Charley! You came.” My mother greets me with a dry kiss on the cheek. She looks older than the last time I was here, mere months ago. Her brown eyes are dull and tired with dark circles underneath. But still, her jet black hair is straightened and pulled back tightly in a perfect bun. She smiles as she welcomes me.
“Hi Mom.” I set my bag down in the foyer. The place hasn’t changed. Peeling floral wallpaper behind the front desk. Faded carpet with familiar stains. I look at the one from the grape juice I spilled, chasing my sister Isla through the lobby when I was eight.
Isla. No one has seen her in 15 years. She’d vanished the summer before I went to college. The summer between Isla’s sophomore and junior years of university. She’d walked through the front door and never returned.
I hate coming back here. The B&B only has one or two guests at a time. Mom is more than able to handle the running of it on her own. I am only back today because Mom has something important to tell me, something that couldn’t be relayed over the phone or by email, according to her.
She takes me into the drawing room, pulling the doors shut behind us. The room smells stuffy. Mom’s antiques could use a good dusting. The books and board games don’t appear to have been utilized by a guest in years. She sits down across from me after I refuse her offers of tea or water.
“Charlotte,” she begins, and I stiffen. She hasn’t used my full name in 15 years. “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it, Mom?” I ask, trying not to sound impatient.
She pauses, putting her hand on her chest, which is heaving. “It was me, Charlotte.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“It was me….Isla…..going missing…it was me…”
I put my head in my hands in frustration. “Mom, what are you talking about?” I ask through my fingers. “Of course you didn’t hurt Isla.”
“Look at me, Charlotte.” Her voice is so shaky it alarms me.
I let out a long breath and face her. She turns to look out of the window, the afternoon sunlight hitting her face in such a way that she appears ethereal, otherworldly. “You know Isla went out that night…”
I nod. “With Blake Loughton.” The Loughton family had been our neighbors since Isla and I were little girls. Blake and Isla had dated off and on for years. Something always seemed to rekindle between them when they returned to town each summer.
Mom shakes her head. “Not with Blake. They had broken up the day before, for good.”
“Really?” She never told me that. But we weren’t especially close that summer. Isla had seemed to age a decade during the year she’d been away. Everything that interested me was beneath her and pedestrian. For the first time ever in our relationship, she made me feel like the annoying little sister, in the way and unwanted. “But Blake told the cops they were together that night. That she was at their place watching a movie.”
“I asked him to say that. I thought it would be easier that way. I didn’t want to damage Isla’s reputation. Or humiliate myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Isla had a date with someone else that night. She wouldn’t tell me who. But I found out. I heard her coming home. I saw him drop her off.” She pauses, putting her hand over her mouth as though she is afraid to let the words come out. “It was John.”
I gasp. John Shipman and my mother had dated for years, throughout almost all of my adolescence. He was what my mother called an elegant man, refined, a sharp dresser, well-educated and well-traveled. They had even been engaged for a time, but Mom ultimately decided she didn’t want to become someone’s wife again. They remained friends, but everyone, including Isla, knew Mom still carried a torch for him.
“What did you do?” My legs are trembling. I imagine what Mom must have felt, seeing her daughter with the man she still loved, the black rage.
“I confronted her as soon as she came in. She had too much to drink. She smelled like wine. Was stumbling around, yelling at me like a maniac. Saying…terrible…things. Things I won’t repeat. But then…she told me that John never cared for me…that they’d…laughed at me…all during their…their…date…” she spits out the last word with disgust. “…I lunged for her.”
“Oh my God, Mom…”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she’s sobbing now. “I was out of control. My hands were around her throat. She hit me and managed to get away but I chased her. I was so…enraged…I couldn’t see anything else.” She pauses. When she speaks again, her voice is soft, barely above a whisper. “She ran through the woods, to the river. I pushed her and she fell into the water. She hit her head on a rock and her body just went limp. The water washed her away.”
I grip the edge of my chair as my stomach churns. “I’m going to be sick!” I run to the nearby powder room and gag.
When I return, I sit across from her again, still in shock. “Why? She was my sister. She wasn’t perfect but she was my sister. You said she was drunk. Who knows if what she said was even true?” It’s my turn to sob.
“I’m so sorry.” Tears fall as she hugs her body, rocking back and forth.
“Why are you telling me this now?” I am breathless, clutching my chest, as she opens a wooden engraved box sitting on the glass coffee table and pulls out folded sheet of plain white paper. Before I open it, I recognize the elegant, slanted handwriting. It’s Isla’s.
“When did you get this?”
My mother’s eyes are huge as she stares at the letter, as though she’s seeing it for the first time. She wrings her hands.
“It came in the mail last week.”
An hour later, I am prostrate on my bed, a cool cloth covering my forehead. I’m in the room I grew up in, which has been converted to a guest suite, The Blue Room. Mom clearly took the theme seriously. A midnight blue duvet covers the bed, the walls are periwinkle, sky blue porcelain elephants cover the side table, which is topped by a aqua doily of course. Tacky, but the decor is somewhat calming.
Isla is on the way. Isla is on the way. I say the words out loud and almost start to laugh, they sound so ridiculous. I wonder why she never contacted me. The letter said that she’d come to in the river, miles away from home. She ran through the woods to the road, hitchhiking out of town. She’d been living out of state all this time, under a new identity, working odd jobs to make ends meet.
I get her not wanting to contact Mom, but why not me? What had I done to her but try and be her sister? She hadn’t mentioned me in her note at all. I told Mom I have no desire to see Isla or speak to her once she arrives, and she made no effort to convince me otherwise.
There is a knock downstairs. The slow creak of the ancient front door opening. I hear the familiar high lilt of Isla’s voice. It is unchanged, after all these years, like her penmanship. At first the rhythm of her voices is easy, peaceful. But the tones eventually get more urgent. There is a loud crash, and I jump from bed. I tiptoe down the stairs and cross the small lobby, placing my ear against the kitchen door.
“You owe me!” Isla yells. “You tried to kill me!”
“Let me make it right,” Mom pleads. “Give me time. I don’t have anything to give you anymore. Everything’s gone. I’ve had some troubles, financially.”
“I don’t believe you.” I hear the click of footsteps. Isla coming closer to Mom, intimidating her. “And now everyone will know what you really are.”
She bursts through the kitchen doors, shocked to see me standing on the other side. “Char…”
I grab the candelabra sitting on the front desk and slam it into her forehead. She withers to the ground, her skull crushed.
Once it is dark, we carry her through the woods, to the river, returning her to the water. I put my arm around my mother’s shoulders as we watch her float away. We stand there for a long time, not speaking, staring at the water, united in a secret.