Stranger in the Lake – Kimberly Belle

I untie the dock cleats and shove the boat into water as gray as the sky. Sometime in the past few hours, gunmetal clouds have rolled over the mountaintops, shooting down icy gusts that froth the surface of Lake Crosby into a million white peaks. My stomach churns, and not from the water’s chop. Maybe morning sickness, maybe nerves at the words I need to say to my new husband out loud. Surprise! I’m pregnant. I sink onto the helm seat and shove my hands into the pockets of my new down jacket. A gift from Paul, who has impeccable taste—the kind that comes from good breeding and a big bank account. We’ve only ever spoken about children in the vaguest of terms. Things like “this room would make a good nursery” or “we would make pretty babies,” the “one day” silent but implied. He and his first wife never tried for a baby before she died, a little over four years ago. I haven’t known him a year. This wasn’t exactly the plan. But neither was falling for a man eleven years older than me, a man who always claimed he’d never marry again. The thirty-seven-year-old wealthy widower falls for a gas station clerk from the muddy side of the mountain, both of us touched by tragedy. A combination that everybody from our town said would never work.

“I don’t give a damn what people think,” Paul is constantly telling me. “I love you and you love me, and that’s all that matters.” But now… My hand feels under the jacket to my still-flat stomach. What will he think about this little surprise blooming inside my belly? I have no idea. His mother, the people in town, friends who’ve known him all his life. I know exactly what they’ll say. They’ll say that this baby was no accident. That the littlest Keller will cement my place at the family dinner table in a way the three carats on my ring finger can’t. That marriages are temporary, but children are until the end of time. That now he’s really trapped.

Sugar daddy, sugar baby, baby daddy. By now the wind has pushed me away from the dock, and I start the engine and swing the boat around. Paul and I live on a cove, but the currents here are swift, the water dangerously deep. The hill his house is perched on doesn’t stop at the shoreline, but plunges to depths of up to three hundred feet. There’s a whole town buried down there, tucked in the hills of what was once a thriving valley. Homes, roads, farms, schools. Graveyards. Whenever anything manages to wriggle loose—a battered shingle, an algae-covered shoe, a slimy dog collar—it ends up here, in Skeleton Cove. Halfway to the town’s center, I ease up on the throttle going around the point to Buck Knob Cove and look westward, over the water and mountains and endless smoky skies. I’ve never lived anywhere else but Lake Crosby, North Carolina—have never even considered it—and still the raw beauty of this place can take my breath away.

These mountains are as much a part of me as my own skin and bones, the connection as real as the cells multiplying in my belly. If I close my eyes, I can feel the plates shifting under my feet. I am the mountains and the mountains are me. I couldn’t live anyplace else if I tried. It’s the one thing I can’t resent my mother for, I suppose, choosing this place to have a family—not that she was much of a parent. I mostly raised myself, and then I raised my brother, Chet, which is how I know love can only go so far. Love doesn’t put food on the table. Love doesn’t pay the rent or the creditors who come banging at the door. A baby needs so much more than love. People say I married Paul for the money, but that’s just not true.

I married him because I love him, and I love him for all the things he provides. A mortgage-free roof over my head and a belly stuffed with nutritious, organic food. Health insurance and car insurance and cell phone and internet. The freedom of never having to choose between going cold or going hungry again. A life that is safe and stable and secure. And really, when you think about it, isn’t security just another word for love? 2 The town of Lake Crosby isn’t much, just three square blocks and some change, but it’s the only town in the southern Appalachians perched at the edge of the water, which makes it a popular tourist spot. Paul’s office is at the far end of the first block, tucked between a fudge shop and Stuart’s Craft Cocktails, which, as far as I can tell, is just another way to say “pretentious bar.” Most of the businesses here are pretentious, farm-to-table restaurants and specialty boutiques selling all things overpriced and unnecessary. For people like Paul, town is a place to socialize and make money—in his case, by selling custom house designs for the million-dollar lots that sit high on the hills or line the lakeshores. My old friends serve his drinks and wait his tables—but only the lucky ones.

There are ten times more locals than there are jobs. The covered terrace for the cocktail lounge is quiet, a result of the off-season and the incoming weather, the sign on the door still flipped to Closed. I’m passing the empty hostess stand when I notice movement at the very back, a tattered shadow peeling away from the wall. Jax—the town loon, the crazy old man who lives in the woods. Most people turn away from him, either out of pity or fear, but not me. For some reason I can’t put into words, I’ve never been afraid to look him straight on. He takes a couple of halting steps, like he doesn’t want to be seen—and he probably doesn’t. Jax is like a deer you come up on in a meadow, one blink and he’s gone. But this time he doesn’t run. His gaze flicks around, searching the street behind me.

“Where’s Paul.” A statement, not a question. Slowly, so not to spook him, I point to the sleek double doors on the next building, golden light spilling out the windows of Keller Architecture. “Did you check inside?” Jax shakes his head. “I need to talk to him. It’s important.” Like every time he emerges from out of the woods, curiosity bubbles in my chest. Once upon a time, Jax had everything going for him. High school prom king and star quarterback, the golden boy with a golden future, and one of Paul’s two best friends. Their picture still sits atop his desk in the study, Paul and Jax and Micah, all tanned chests and straightened smiles, three teenage boys with the world at their feet.

Now he’s Batty Jax, the raggedy, bearded boogeyman parents use as a warning. Do your homework, stay out of trouble, and don’t end up like Jax. He clings to the murky back of the terrace, sticking to the shaded spots where it’s too dark for me to make out much more than a halo of matted hair, the jutting edges of an oversized jacket, long, lean thighs. His face is dark, too, the combination of a life outdoors and dirt. “Do you want me to give Paul a message? Or if you stay right there, I can send him out. I know he’ll want to see you.” Actually, I don’t know; I only assume. Jax is the source of a slew of rumors and petty gossip, but for Paul, he’s a painful subject, one he doesn’t like to talk about. As far as I know, the two haven’t spoken since high school graduation—not an easy thing to do in a town where everybody knows everybody. Jax glances up the street, in the direction of far-off voices floating on the icy wind.

I don’t follow his gaze, but I can tell from the way his body turns skittish that someone is coming this way, moving closer. “Do you need anything? Some money, maybe?” Good thing those people aren’t within earshot, because they would laugh at the absurdity of the trailer-park girl turned married-up wifey offering the son of an insurance tycoon some cash. Not that Jax’s father didn’t disown him ages ago or that I have more than a couple of bucks in my pocket, but still. Jax shakes his head again. “Tell Paul I need to talk to him. Tell him to hurry.” Before I can ask what for, he’s off, planting a palm on the railing and springing over in one easy leap, his body light as a pole vaulter. He hits the cement and takes off up the alley. I dash forward until I’m flush with the railing, peering down the long passage between Paul’s building and the cocktail lounge, but it’s empty. Jax is already gone.

I push through the doors of Keller Architecture, an open space with cleared desks and darkened computer screens. The whiteboard on the back wall has already been wiped clean, too, one of the many tasks Paul requires his staff to do daily. It’s nearing five, and other than his lead designer, Gwen, hunched over a drawing at her drafting table, the office is empty. She nods at my desk. “Perfect timing. I just finished the Curtis Cottage drawings.” Calling a seven-thousand-square-foot house a “cottage” is ridiculous, as are whatever reasons Tom Curtis and his wife, a couple well into their seventies, gave Paul for wanting six bedrooms and two kitchens in what is essentially a weekend home. But the Curtises are typical Keller Architecture clients—privileged, demanding and more than a little entitled. They like Paul because he’s one of them. Having a desk is probably ridiculous, too, since I only work twenty hours a week, and for most of them I’m anywhere but here.

My role is client relations, which consists mainly of hauling my ass to wherever the clients are so I can put out fires and talk them off the latest ledge. The job and the desk are one of the many perks of being married to a Keller. “Thanks.” I tuck the Curtis designs under an arm and move toward the hallway to my left, a sleek tunnel of wood and steel that ends in Paul’s glass-walled office. “I’m here to pick up Paul. There’s something wrong with his car.” When he called earlier to tell me his car was dead in the lot, I thought he was joking. Engine trouble is what happens to my ancient Civic, not Paul’s fancy Range Rover, a brand-new supercharged machine with a dashboard that belongs in a cockpit. More money than sense, my mother would say about Paul if she were here, and now, I guess, about me. Gwen leans back in her chair, wagging a mechanical pencil between two slim fingers.

“Yeah, the dealer is sending a tow truck and a replacement car, but they just called to say they’re delayed. He said he had a couple of errands to run.” I frown. “Who, the tow truck driver?” “No, Paul.” She swivels in her chair, reaching across the desk behind her for a straightedge. “He should be back any sec.” I thank her and head for the door. On the sidewalk, I fire off a quick text to Paul. I’m here, where are you? I wait for a reply that doesn’t come. The screen goes dark, then black.

I slip the phone into my jacket pocket and start walking. In a town like Lake Crosby, there are only so many places Paul could be. The market, the pharmacy, the shop where he buys his ties and socks. I pop into all of them, but no one’s seen him since this morning. Back on the sidewalk, I pull out my phone and give him a call. It rings once, then shoots me to voice mail. I hit End and look up and down the mostly deserted street. “Hey, Charlie,” somebody calls from across the road, two single lanes separated by a parking strip, and I whirl around, spotting Wade’s familiar face over the cars and SUVs. One of my brother’s former classmates, a known troublemaker who dropped out sophomore year because he was too busy cooking meth and raising hell. He leans against the ivory siding of the bed-and-breakfast, holding what I sincerely hope is a hand-rolled cigarette.

“It’s Charlotte,” I say, but I don’t know why I bother. On my sixteenth birthday, I plunked down more than a hundred hard-earned dollars at the courthouse to change my name. But no matter how many times I correct the people who knew me back when—people who populate the trailer parks and shacks along the mountain range, people like Wade and me—no matter how many times I tell them I’m not that person anymore, to them I’ll always be Charlie. He flicks the cigarette butt into the gutter and tilts his head up the street. “I just saw your old man coming out of the coffee shop.” Emphasis on the old man. “If you hurry, you can probably catch him.” I mumble a thanks, then head in that direction. Just past the market, I spot Paul at the far end of a side street, a paper cup clutched in his hand. He’s wearing the clothes I watched him pull on this morning—a North Face fleece, a navy cashmere sweater, dark jeans, leather lace-up boots, but no coat.

No hat or scarf or gloves. Paul always dresses like this, without a second thought as to the elements. That fleece might be fine for the quick jogs from the house to his car to the office door, but with the wind skimming up the lake, he must be freezing. The woman he’s talking to is more properly dressed. Boots and a black wool coat, the big buttons fastened all the way to a neck cloaked in a double-wrapped scarf. A knitted hat is pulled low over her ears and hair, leaving only a slice of her face—from this angle, her profile—exposed. “There you are,” I say, and they both turn. A short but awkward silence. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he looks surprised to see me. “Charlotte, hi.

I was just…” He glances at the woman, then back to me. “What are you doing here?” “You asked me to pick you up. Didn’t you get my text?” With his free hand, he wriggles his cell from his pocket and checks the screen. “Oh. Sorry, I must have had it on Silent. I was on my way back to the office, but then I got to talking and…well, you know how that goes.” He gives me a sheepish smile. It’s a known fact that Paul is a talker, and like in most small towns, there’s always someone to talk to. But I don’t know this woman. I take in her milky skin and sky blue eyes, the light smattering of freckles across her nose and high cheekbones, and I’m positive I’ve never seen her before.

She’s the kind of pretty a person would remember, almost beautiful even, though she’s nothing like his type. Paul likes his women curvy and exotic, with dark hair and ambiguous coloring. This woman is bony, her skin so pale it’s almost translucent. I step closer, holding up my hand in a wave. “Hi, I’m Charlotte Keller. Paul’s wife.” The woman gives me a polite smile, but her gaze flits to Paul. She murmurs something, and I’m pretty sure it’s “Keller.” The hairs soldier on the back of my neck, even though I’ve never been the jealous type. It’s always seemed like such a waste of energy to me, being possessive and suspicious of a man who claims to love you.

Either you believe him or you don’t—or so I’ve always thought. Paul tells me he loves me all the time, and I believe him. But this woman wouldn’t be the first around these parts to try to snag herself a Keller. “Are you ready?” I say, looking at Paul. “Because I came in the boat, and we need to get home before this weather blows in.” The talk of rain does the trick, and Paul snaps out of whatever I walked into here. He gives me that smile he saves only for me, and a rush of something warm hits me hard, right behind the knees. People who say Paul and I are wrong together don’t get that we’ve been waiting for each other all our lives. His first wife’s death, my convict father and meth-head mother, they broke us for a reason, so all these years later our jagged edges would fit together perfectly, like two pieces of the same fractured puzzle. The first time Paul took my hand, the world just…started making sense.

And now there’s a baby, a perfect little piece of Paul and me, an accidental miracle that somehow busted through the birth control. Maybe it’s not a fluke but a sign, the universe’s way of telling me something good is coming. A new life. A new chance to get things right. All of a sudden and out of nowhere I feel it, this burning in my chest, an overwhelming, desperate fire for this baby that’s taken root in my belly. I want it to grow and kick and thrive. I want it with everything inside me. “Let’s go home.” Without so much as a backward glance at the woman, Paul takes my hand and leads me to the boat. We’re smack in the middle of Lake Crosby when it starts to snow, lazy fat flakes dancing down from a canopy of white.

Flurries, but there’s more coming. Those are snow clouds spilling over the mountaintops. Paul has the bow pointed to home and the throttle buried, and I don’t blame him. His fleece was bad enough in town, where there were warm shops to duck in and brick buildings to huddle behind. Out here on the open water the wind is fierce, and he might as well be shirtless. He’s hunched low behind the windshield, steering the boat with his knees, his hands shoved deep in his pits for warmth. I take in his blue lips, his chattering teeth, and wince. I should have brought his coat. Tell him. Just open your mouth and say I’m pregnant.

Do it now. “Hey, Paul?” The words get lost in the roar of the engine, but there’s no stopping now. Not when I’ve finally summoned my courage. I tap him on the shoulder and try again. “Paul.” He pulls back on the throttle, slowing the boat to a crawl. “What’s wrong? Did you forget something?”

.

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