All the Beautiful Lies – Peter Swanson

Now Harry was briefly blinded—the bright May sun hitting just the right spot on his windshield—as he turned onto the crushed-shell driveway of the house in Kennewick Village. He pulled his Civic next to the orange Volvo station wagon—a car his father had loved—and covered his face with his hands and almost cried. Alice, his father’s second wife, had called Harry early the previous morning to tell him that his father, Bill, was dead. “What? How?” Harry asked. He was on his cell phone, walking across the tree-lined quad toward his dormitory. He’d been thinking about graduation, less than a week away, worrying about what he was going to do for the rest of his life. “He slipped and fell.” Alice was speaking with gaps between the words. Harry realized she was crying, and trying not to show it, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “Where?” Harry asked. His whole body was cold and his legs had turned to rubber. He stopped walking, and the girl behind him, also on her cell phone, grazed against his backpack as she moved around him on the brick walkway. “Out on the cliff path, where he liked to walk.” Alice was now audibly crying, the words sounding like they were coming through a wet towel. “Who found him?” “They were tourists.

I don’t know. They didn’t know him, Harry.” It took a second phone call later that day to get all the details. Alice had gone out in the afternoon to do errands. She’d stopped by the store to see Bill, and he’d told her that he planned on going for a walk before it got dark and that he’d be home for dinner. She’d told him to be careful, as she always did, and that she was making shepherd’s pie for dinner, the way he liked it, with the cubed lamb instead of ground hamburger. The food was ready by six, the time they normally ate dinner, but there was no sign of Bill. And he wasn’t answering his phone. She called John, the only other employee at the bookstore, and he said that all he knew was what Alice knew. Bill had left a little before five to go for a walk.

It was dark now, and Alice called the police station, where she was patched through to an Officer Wheatley. Just as he was explaining to Alice that there was nothing they could do if he’d only been missing a little over an hour, she heard another voice interrupt him in the background. The officer told Alice to hang on for a moment, and that was when she knew. When he came back on the line, his voice had altered, and he told her he’d be transferring her to a Detective Dixon. A body had just been found near Kennewick Harbor, and would Alice be available to make an identification. “How did he die?” Harry asked. “They won’t rule anything out, but they seemed to think he slipped and fell and hit his head.” “He did that walk every day.” “I know. I told them that.

We’ll find out more, Harry.” “I just don’t understand.” He felt as though he’d thought those words a hundred times that day. It was Thursday, and his graduation ceremony was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. His father and Alice had been planning on coming down to New Chester in Connecticut on Saturday night, staying through till Monday, and helping Harry pack up his things for his temporary return to Maine. Instead, Harry packed everything himself, staying up half the night. Among his textbooks and notebooks, Harry found the paperback edition of Hillary Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing . that his father had given him at the beginning of the school year. “It’s a crime novel set at a university,” his father had said. “I know you like Ed McBain, so I thought you might like this one, as well.

It’s a very early procedural. If you find time to read it, of course.” Harry hadn’t, but he opened the book now. Inside was a slip of paper in his father’s handwriting. One of his father’s favorite activities had been making lists, almost always related to books. This one read: Five Best Campus Crime Novels Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin Last Seen Wearing . by Hillary Waugh The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter The Secret History by Donna Tartt Harry stared at the note, trying to process what it meant that his father—the only person left in his life whom he truly loved—was gone. In the morning he wrote an e-mail to Jane Ogden, his thesis advisor, telling her he’d have to miss the history majors’ dinner that night, and explaining why. Then he went onto his college’s website and found an e-mail address for letting the school know that he wouldn’t be attending graduation. In bold letters on the website it said that cancellations could not be made within two weeks of graduation.

But what were they going to do? If his name got called, and he wasn’t there, what did it possibly matter? There was little else to do. His work and exams were all finished, all his requirements submitted. There were friends to see, of course. And there was Kim. He’d run into her the previous weekend at the St. Dun’s party. They’d kissed in the billiards room, and promised to see each other one more time before graduation. But he didn’t really want to see Kim now; he didn’t want to see anyone. His friends would hear the news, eventually, one way or another. Harry rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, shut off the engine, and stepped out into the seasalt air, much cooler than it had been in Connecticut.

He spotted Alice in a second-floor window— his father’s and her bedroom window—and when she saw that Harry had noticed her she waved briefly. She was in a white robe, her skin and hair pale as gold, and she looked almost ghostly in the arched Victorian window. After waving she disappeared from view. He breathed deeply, preparing himself to see Alice, and preparing himself to walk into the house he’d only ever known as his father’s house, full of his father’s things. In the doorway, Harry hugged Alice. Her hair smelled of expensive shampoo, something with lavender in it. “Thank you for coming back early,” she said, her voice huskier than usual, strained from crying. “Of course,” Harry said. “I made up your old room for you. Can I help you bring things in?” “No, no,” Harry said.

“It’s not much.” It took just three trips from the car to the second-floor bedroom. Harry’s old room had never really been his room; at least he had never thought of it that way. His mother had died of lung cancer when he was fifteen years old. Back then they’d lived in a two-bedroom apartment above his father’s first shop—Ackerson’s Rare Books—in the West Village in New York City. Because Harry had just begun high school when his mother died, his father had decided that it would be best for them both to stay in Manhattan until Harry had graduated. Living with his father in the dark, narrow apartment, made somehow smaller by his mother’s absence, was both terrible and comforting. As long as they continued to live there, they could feel Emily Ackerson’s presence, and the cold fact that she was gone forever. In summertime, Harry and his father tended to spend more time in Sanford, Maine, than they did in New York. It was Bill’s hometown; his sister and her family, plus a cousin he was close to, still lived there.

On those trips, Bill began to scout locations for a second rare-books store, one along the coast. They rented a cottage on Kennewick Beach so that Bill could spend more time looking at properties. That was how he’d met Alice Moss, who was working as an agent at Coast Home Realty. They became engaged during Harry’s senior year of high school, and when Harry went off to college, his father had made the permanent move to Maine, marrying Alice and buying the Victorian fixerupper that he’d named Grey Lady. His business partner, Ron Krakowski, kept the New York store running, and Bill and Alice opened a second store in Kennewick Village, walking distance to the house. The summer after freshman year was the only full summer that Harry spent in Maine with his father and his new wife. Alice, who had never married and was childless, had been ecstatic, transforming one of the guest bedrooms into what must have been her notion of a young man’s room. She’d painted the walls a dark maroon—“hunting-coat red,” she called it—and bought furniture from L.L.Bean that looked like it belonged in a fishing lodge.

She’d even framed an original poster of The Great Escape, because Harry had once told her that it was his favorite film. He’d been grateful for the room, but slightly uncomfortable in it. His father, as he’d always done, traveled the country scouting books at estate sales and flea markets. Harry was left alone with Alice, who worked hard at being a replacement for his mother, constantly making him food, cleaning his room, meticulously folding his clothes. She was thirteen years younger than his father, which made her exactly thirteen years older than Harry, although she looked young for her age. Despite living on the coast of Maine her entire life, she avoided the sun because of her pale complexion, and her skin was unlined, almost lucid. Her only exercise was swimming, either at the community pool or in the ocean when it was warm enough. She ate ravenously, drank glasses of whole milk like she was a teenager, and was neither thin nor overweight, just curvaceous, with wide hips, and a narrow waist, and long legs that tapered to childlike ankles. It had been hot and humid that summer, and there was no central air-conditioning in the house. Alice had spent all of July and August in cutoff jeans and a pale green bikini top, unaware of the effect she was having on her teenage stepson.

She was a strange kind of beautiful, her eyes set too far apart, her skin so pale that you could always make out the blue veins right near the surface. She reminded Harry of one of those hot alien races from Star Trek, a beautiful female who just happened to have green skin, say, or ridges on her forehead. She was otherworldly. Harry found himself in a state of constant, confused sexual turmoil, guiltily obsessing over Alice. And the way she mothered him—making sure he had enough to eat, making sure that he was comfortable—made the attraction all the more distressing. After that first and only summer in Kennewick, Harry had arranged to spend his college breaks either staying with friends or remaining in New Chester, doing research for one of his professors. He saw his father fairly often, because of how much time he still spent in New York, meeting with Ron Krakowski, negotiating purchases and sales. New Chester was less than two hours away from the city by train. “You should come to Maine more often,” his father had told him recently. They’d been browsing through some of the recent arrivals at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho.

“Alice would like it.” Bill rarely mentioned her name, as though doing so somehow tainted the memory of Harry’s deceased mother. “I’ll come this summer,” Harry said. “How is she?” “The same,” his father said. “Too young for me, probably.” He paused, then added: “She’s a loyal woman. I’ve been lucky, twice, you know.” The room—Harry’s room—was nearly the same as it had been when Alice had first decorated it, three years earlier. The major difference being that the empty bookcase she’d originally provided —“You can leave some of your favorite books here, Harry”—had been filled with a number of his father’s first edition crime paperbacks, and the top of the bookcase had been covered with framed photographs, probably selected by Alice. Most were of Harry and his father, but one was a picture of his parents that he’d never seen before, back when they’d first met, sometime in the early 1980s, sitting together on a balcony, each with a cigarette perched between their fingers.

They were roughly the age Harry was now, and yet they looked older somehow, more sophisticated. Harry felt like he’d just barely left adolescence and knew that he looked that way as well. He was tall and very thin, with dark, thick hair that flopped over his forehead. Kim had affectionately called him “beanpole.” At parties, random girls sometimes told him how much they envied his cheekbones and eyelashes. “Harry.” It was Alice, just outside the door. She had whispered his name and he jumped a little at the sound. “Sorry. I didn’t know if you’d want tea or coffee so I brought both.

” She stepped into the room, a mug in each hand. “They each have milk and sugar. That’s right, isn’t it?” “Thank you, Alice. It is.” He took the coffee, not planning on drinking much, since what he really wanted to do was sleep. Being at the house had already exhausted him. “Is it okay if I take a nap? I didn’t sleep much last night.” “Of course it is,” Alice said, backing away. “Sleep as long as you want.” After shutting the door, he took a sip of the coffee, then removed his shoes and belt and slid under the plaid comforter, his mind filling with unwanted images of his father in his final moments.

Had he died instantly without any knowledge of what was happening? Maybe he’d had a heart attack or a stroke, and that had caused him to fall? Harry opened his eyes, giving up on the possibility of sleep. He could not bear to think of his father any longer and thought instead of college, the immersive reality of his last four years, and how it had suddenly ended. A surreal emotion came over him, the way you sometimes feel when you return from two weeks abroad, and the trip immediately seems like a mirage, as though it barely happened. That was how he felt now, thinking back on four years of college. Those years, his small group of friends, Kim Petersen, the professors he’d bonded with, were scattered now, permanently, like an ornate vase that shatters into a thousand pieces. His father was gone as well, leaving him with no family but Alice, and cousins he loved but with whom he had very little in common. He stood by his bed, not knowing what to do next. Alice was vacuuming; he could hear the familiar hum from somewhere in the immense house. His phone rang. Paul Roman, his best friend from college.

He’d call him back; the last thing he wanted to do right now was talk. Instead, he walked to the window, cracked it slightly to let in some air. He looked out over the tops of the bright green trees. The steeple of the congregational church was visible, as was the shingled roof of the Village Inn and, in the distance, a snippet of the Atlantic Ocean, grey beneath a hazy sky. A young woman with dark hair held back in a headband walked slowly up the street. Harry watched as she noticeably slowed while passing the Victorian, glancing up at the windows. He instinctually stepped back into the bedroom. In the small, gossipy village of Kennewick, word must have gotten out. His phone rang again. It was Gisela, another friend from college.

Clearly, word had also gotten out among his friends at school. His father’s death had actually happened. He held the phone, knowing that he needed to call one of his friends back, but unable to get his fingers to move. The sounds of the vacuum were closer now. He sat down on the hardwood floor and leaned against the wall, rocking back and forth, still not crying. Chapter 2 Then Alice Moss was fourteen when she moved to Kennewick, Maine. Her mother, Edith Moss, having finally received her check from the Saltonstall Mill settlement, took herself and her daughter from a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Biddeford to a singlefamily house in Kennewick Village. Her mother told Alice that now that they had money, and a house to call their own in a nice town, Alice would have to start acting like a little lady. Alice was just happy to be near the ocean. She claimed she had never seen it before even though Biddeford, less than twenty miles north of Kennewick, also bordered the shore.

“Of course you’ve seen the ocean,” her mother said. “I used to take you there all the time when you were a baby.” “I don’t remember it.” “Alice Moss, of course you do. You used to be afraid of the gulls.” The mention of the gulls triggered a memory. Alice pictured her mother feeding them corn chips, laughing, as hordes of the dirty birds swarmed around them. She also remembered the prickly feel of her sunburned skin and the way the sand clumped to the side of her juice box. Still, to her mother she said: “I don’t remember any of that. That must have been some other baby you had.

” Her mother laughed, showing her crooked teeth, stained where they overlapped. “Well, now you can go to the beach all by yourself whenever you want. Show off that body of yours.” Edith darted out a hand toward her daughter’s breasts, probably thinking about twisting one of them, but Alice jumped back out of her reach. “Gross, Mom,” she said, and left the kitchen. Her mom’s happiness since the settlement money had come in had been kind of nauseating. The boiler explosion had nearly killed her, but when the check arrived, she’d danced around their apartment like she was a teenager, then gone out and bought a carton of her favorite cigarettes, plus a big bottle of Absolut vodka. Alice had panicked that her mom would spend all the money right away, doing something stupid like taking her girlfriends on a cruise, or getting a brand-new sports car, but after the fancy vodka and the cigarettes, she only bought a bunch of new clothes, then told Alice how they were moving out of Biddeford to a real nice town called Kennewick. Alice pretended to be dismayed, but she was okay with it, especially when she found out that the house they were renting had her own bedroom and bathroom in it. That made up for leaving her friends behind and having to start over at a new high school.

And the house was pretty nice, with big windows and wooden floors instead of stained wall-to-wall carpeting that smelled like cigarettes. They moved at the end of May, and Alice had the whole summer to herself. Back in Biddeford there was nowhere to go but Earl’s Famous Roast Beef and the roller skating rink, but here she could walk to Kennewick Beach, a long, sandy stretch packed with tourists all summer. And even though she had privately conceded that she’d seen the ocean before, it still felt like the first time. When the sun was out, the clear, cold water would sparkle, almost looking like pictures she’d seen of tropical places. The first time she walked down to the water by herself was Memorial Day. The beach was crawling with people, mostly families, but lots of teenagers as well, muscular boys and skinny girls in bikinis. Underneath her high-waisted jean shorts and Ocean Pacific T-shirt, Alice was wearing a dark red one-piece that was a little too snug. She’d bought it the previous summer to swim at her friend Lauren’s aboveground pool, but her mom had rarely washed it, and it had faded at the seams from all the chlorine in the pool water. That first day at the beach, she walked along the water’s edge, carrying her sandals, liking the way the wet sand felt, sucking at her toes.

But she never swam. Later that week Alice bought herself two new bathing suits with her own money at a gift store on Route 1A. One was a black bikini she wasn’t sure she would ever wear and one was a green one-piece, kind of boring, but with high slits up the sides. She also bought a straw bag, a towel, and a bottle of Coppertone sun oil. She began to go to the beach daily, developing a strict routine. She quickly learned that she hated getting too much sun. It made her itch, and she didn’t tan; her white skin just burned, or broke out in hideous heat rashes. She swapped out the sun oil for sunblock—the highest number she could find—and each morning of the summer, after showering, she would thickly spread the sunblock over her entire body. It made her feel impervious. Then she would pack her bag with a tuna fish sandwich, a thermos of Country Time lemonade, and one of her mom’s romance novels, and set out for a day at the beach.

There, she would spread her large towel out, making sure to put small rocks on all the corners so that it would stay flat. She would sit and read the romance novel, occasionally taking a break to watch other beachgoers play Frisbee or dart in and out of the water. No one ever approached her, but occasionally she caught boys or even sometimes older men taking surreptitious glances in her direction. It didn’t matter if she was only in her bathing suit, or if it was a cooler day and she was still wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but it did seem to happen more when she was in her black bikini. Before lunch every day on the beach she would take one swim, forcing herself to walk straight into the bone-chilling water without hesitation. She learned that if you stayed in the water, swimming back and forth, for at least two minutes, your skin would turn numb and it would no longer feel cold. The salt in the ocean made the water so much more buoyant than the water in Lauren’s pool, and if she put her arms back over her head she could float on the surface and look up at the sky. She swam only once during each beach trip because of how long it took her to dry off, making sure that not a single grain of sand got onto her towel. Then she would eat her sandwich, drink her lemonade, and go back to her book. Her mother came to the beach with Alice only once during the summer.

It was a Saturday in late July. Edith had gotten up early, taken a shower, and put on makeup, all because she was expecting her friend Jackie from Biddeford to come visit for the day. But Jackie called and canceled. “You’d think I’d asked her to drive halfway across the state,” Edith said after the call. “It’s two fucking towns over. What are you doing today, Al?” “Beach.” “Of course, the beach. I should go along with you just to find out if you really go. How is it you go to the beach every day and your skin is like chalk?” “I wear sunblock.” “When I was your age I went to the beach all the time and I was practically black.

Well, maybe I will come with you, unless you’d rather I didn’t.” “You should come. I’ll make another sandwich.” It took Edith forever to get ready. Half of her stuff was still in boxes and she puttered back and forth looking for just the right bathing suit, one that turned out to be a leopard-skin one-piece that exposed a lot of her chest, her skin leathery and darkly freckled. The bathing suit also exposed her left arm, puckered and scarred from the accident at the paper mill. “I think I’m ready, Al. Can I bring a bottle of wine to the beach or is that a no-no?” “I can put some in a thermos for you,” Alice said, already swinging open the refrigerator where her mother kept her bottles of Mateus rosé. It was almost noon by the time they had settled on the sand, each on their own towel. It was a perfect day, the only visible clouds thin ragged wisps on the horizon line.

The air smelled of the ocean, but also suntan lotion, and the occasional trace of someone’s cigarette smoke clinging to the light breeze. Alice started reading; she was halfway through Lace again, by Shirley Conran. Her mother cracked her own book, but wasn’t looking at it. She was twitchy and unsettled, and she began to drink from her thermos of wine. “Wanna walk?” she asked after a while. “Sure,” Alice said. They walked the length of the beach and back, Edith keeping the shawl over her shoulders. “Look out, Al, it’s a gull,” she kept saying, prodding Alice’s shoulder. “I’m not scared of gulls anymore,” Alice said. “So you do remember the gulls.

” “No. You told me I was scared of them. I don’t remember those trips, if we ever went on them.” When they got back to their beach towels, Alice was hot, the back of her neck damp with sweat. “Do you want to swim?” she asked her mother. “God, no, it’s freezing.” Alice went alone, swimming out past where the waves were breaking so that she could lie on her back and rise and fall with the swells. She closed her eyes and watched the small explosions of color behind her lids, and if she leaned far enough back, and submerged her ears, all she could hear was the blank roar of the ocean. When she returned to her mother there was an older man standing above her, his feet spaced apart and his hands on his hips. He wore black swim trunks, cut high up on his thighs.

His hair was parted on the side and greying at the temples. Even though he was in good shape, it was clear that he was standing extra rigid, pulling in his stomach a little. “Alice, this is Jake,” Edith said, squinting up into the sun. “Hi, Alice,” the man said, transferring a lit cigarette from his right hand to his left to shake her hand. He wore aviator sunglasses with reflective lenses. Alice wondered if he was looking at her body from behind them. When he released her hand, she bent and picked up the towel she used to dry herself, wrapping it around her. “Your mother here—” Jake started. “Jake helped me open up an account at the local bank. That’s where I got the new clock radio from, the one that’s in the kitchen.

” “Oh,” Alice said. She’d dried her hair and sat down on the edge of her towel, being careful to keep her wet feet firmly in the sand. The man called Jake crouched down. Edith propped herself up on an elbow. She had a lit cigarette as well, perched between her fingers, the heat from its tip causing the already warm air to ripple. “I was just telling your mother,” the man said, “how I’d be happy to show you two around Kennewick. Give you the real local’s point of view. Best clam roll, et cetera.” Alice must have made a face, because he laughed. “Okay, then.

Best ice cream place.” “Sure,” Alice said, and scooched a little farther back on her towel. The man turned his attention back to Edith. Alice lay back, and concentrated on the way the hot sun was drying the droplets of water on her face. She could almost feel them evaporating, leaving behind tiny deposits of salt. “Okay, then. It’s a date,” the man said, and Alice opened her eyes. He was standing again, blocking the sun. He wasn’t actually bad looking, Alice thought. He looked like a man who should be in a Newport cigarettes commercial.

The man crouched again, his bathing suit tightening around his crotch so that Alice could see the bulge of his genitals. She looked instead at his sunglasses, a silvery blue in the bright sunshine. “Alice, so nice meeting you. If you grow up any more the opposite sex won’t stand a chance.” “That’s what I tell her,” Edith said. “All the time. Don’t grow up. It’s not worth it.” The man stood, both he and her mother now laughing in that obviously fake way that older people did. He said good-bye and wandered off, still holding his body stiffly as though it might collapse if he fully let a breath out.

Edith stubbed her cigarette—the man’s brand, not her own—out in the sand, and said, “What did you think of Jake?” She said it expectantly, her voice pitched a little too high, and Alice suddenly realized that this meeting had been at least partly arranged, that the man and her mother had not simply bumped into each other at the beach, or if they had, they’d seen each other before. And not just at the bank. “He seemed nice,” Alice said. “He’s very successful,” Edith replied, digging out one of her own cigarettes from the purse she’d brought. Alice lay back down. She was worried she hadn’t put enough sunblock on her face that morning, and so she draped the towel over her head. It felt nice on her face, damp and cool. She thought about the man her mother had met. He was old and a little cheesy, but not that bad. When her mother was a mill worker at a paper factory and a single mother, she had to date a building manager who wore sleeveless T-shirts and had thick moles all over his shoulders and neck.

Now that she didn’t have to work, and lived in a nice town like Kennewick, Edith could date men who worked in banks and cared about how they looked. It was the way the world worked. She knew that much from the books she read. Rich girls married rich boys, and their lives were better. It was simple. She couldn’t see it, but a cloud must have crossed the sun because she could feel a sudden coolness on her skin. She sat up too fast, becoming a little dizzy. She realized she must have fallen asleep. There were fewer people on the beach now, and her mom was packing up. “Ready to go, Al?” she asked.


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