The Winter Guests

Rachel’s father framed this as something they had come up with together. She was flying home from Smith for winter break, and he would pick her up at the airport. On the drive home to Davis, they would stop in Miwok Valley and spend a week at The Mountain Inn and Resort, a historic bed-and-breakfast seated at the top of Mount Imola.

They had had a falling out a month before. It was over the prepaid credit card he put three hundred dollars on each month to buy textbooks, the occasional meal outside the dining hall, and other incidentals. Rachel had outspent the card’s limit only ten days after it had been paid, even though her father had determined what he said was the perfect amount for practicalities and a bit of fun. But his estimate did not include treating herself to a haircut from a real salon—not the children’s hairdresser she saw at home—or taking Asha to dinner after lecture. Rachel felt giddy making these purchases, knowing them to be out of the realm of her father’s expectations.

After listening to her father’s voicemail about the overcharge, and once Rachel’s own sense of shame dimmed, a feeling of indignation rose. When she called her father back that night, Rachel was ready to explain that, on the surface, this was about her exceeding her credit limit, but it was more than that. The new life Rachel had found at school, the things she was finding she believed in, and the person she was becoming, or rather, the person she really was, didn’t square with her father’s idea of her. It was possible her father wasn’t her kind of person. She had practiced her talking points with Asha, but they became muddled when she got on the phone with her father. He had this way of repeating a few words she had just said and making them sound ridiculous and childish. She hung up, expecting him to call again immediately. But he didn’t, and this was almost worse than anything he could say.

She might have stayed in Northampton for break, or gone to Asha’s house in upstate New York, but Rachel’s father had purchased her plane ticket home back in October. It wasn’t until a week ago, when they had to coordinate her pickup from the airport, that Rachel and her father spoke again. This would all be very nice, Rachel’s father said, and Rachel, wanting both to prolong their disagreement and to end it, agreed. He was waiting for her outside the arrivals terminal. Their arms entangled as Rachel reached for a side hug and her father attempted a paternal double arm pat. He stood back and regarded her, and she knew he was taking it all in—the pixie cut, the weight gain—but said nothing. The security guard standing nearby cleared his throat, and Rachel’s father popped the trunk of his station wagon open so she could heave her bags into it.

Traffic was light through the city, and it took only forty minutes to reach the Miwok Valley exit. It was a rural two-lane road that led toward Mount Imola, and cyclists had taken over the uphill lane. Rachel’s father huffed and threw up his hands at them, but would not cross over to the other side to pass, even as a growing line of cars stacked up behind them. He attempted to pass them without crossing over the yellow line but got too close; one of the cyclists stared hatefully at them through Rachel’s window. Rachel looked to her father, but he only shook his head, his eyes fixed on the road before them.

The road forked and then plateaued. They had reached Mount Imola State Park, and just ahead was the Mountain Inn. It resembled a large tent made of stone, its three distinctive peaks each holding a banner: the flag of California, the American flag, and an unknown one Rachel suspected belonged to the inn itself. The inn straddled the edge of two worlds, the endless ocean and redwoods to the west, and the town of Miwok Valley and Drake Bay to the east. Rachel and her parents had driven past The Mountain Inn on a trip through Miwok Valley twelve years ago when Rachel’s mother was still alive, and The Mountain Inn had since become this sort of gauzy dream destination. A lovely feeling enveloped Rachel; it was the sense of experiencing something in the exact manner she had as a child.

As their car pulled closer, Rachel could see groups of tourists in a large parking lot across from the inn, belched out by a double decker tour bus, standing in dense packs with their cameras and guidebooks. Rachel’s father made a sound of disapproval.

“Look at that,” he marveled. “Like cockroaches. I didn’t think it would be crowded like this.” He pulled the car into The Mountain Inn’s small lot, parking in front of the imposing stone entryway. The sky was deceptively cloudless, but when they stepped out of the car, the air had a bracing chill. One of the inn’s heavy wooden doors was propped open, and Rachel and her father walked inside.

It took a moment for Rachel’s eyes to adjust to the darkened interior. There was a passageway and stairs leading up to the left. To her right was a large open gathering room, with a giant paned window that overlooked Miwok Valley and Drake Bay. A generous fire burned in the large fireplace with two overstuffed chairs placed before it. The air was fragrant with the smoke of the fire and wafts of other wonderful things, bacon and caramelized sugar. It was far nicer than Rachel expected. There was something singular about this place, its wood and stone and bronze melding together as if carved from a single piece.

The check-in desk was topped with a mason jar filled with wildflowers, reaching upward and over the jar in an improbably artistic manner. Behind the desk was a girl, also improbable in her attractiveness. Her name, Lillian, was stitched in burgundy script on her white uniform shirt.

“Good afternoon,” said Lillian. “Welcome to the historic Mountain Inn and Resort.”

“There are more people here than we expected,” Rachel’s father said to Lillian, and Rachel cringed at the we. He had this habit of speaking for both of them. Lillian seemed not to hear him.

“I trust your travels went smoothly?”

“Your brochure calls this place a secluded getaway,” Rachel’s father insisted.

“And that it is. The day visitors are nothing to worry about,” Lillian said. “They only come on weekends. You’re staying with us until Friday? You won’t see them again.” Rachel’s father sputtered in disbelief.

“Actually,” Lillian said, leaning over the desk toward them, “you two are going to have the run of the place. A big party of wedding guests just checked out, and our next group won’t come until Wednesday night.”

“Well,” said Rachel’s father, “that would be ideal if true.”

As her father filled out the check-in paperwork and Lillian pressed his credit card on the imprinter, Rachel walked around the inn’s lobby, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows and lingering by the fireplace. A bronze plaque set in the stone wall of the dining area read famous rabbit stew since 1909. Rachel’s father was suddenly at her elbow.

“Rabbit stew?” he said dubiously, making a face at Rachel as though they were sharing this joke. He glanced back at Lillian. “She’s got an unusual look, doesn’t she? What do they call that? Black Irish?”

Rachel didn’t look at Lillian, but instead out the window at the houses of Miwok Valley, their windows twinkling orange in the afternoon light.

“It’s not a slur,” Rachel’s father said. “You go to college and now you think everything is politically incorrect.”

“I like your haircut,” Lillian said brightly to Rachel once they were back at the desk. Rachel ran a self-conscious hand over the short hairs at the back of her neck, avoiding her father’s eyes.

“Thanks,” said Rachel. “It’s a little shorter than I expected.”

“Well, it looks fantastic,” Lillian said. “Seb, our bellman-slash-sous-chef, will be along in just a moment to help you with your bags. Would you like him to re-park your car for you?”

“Yes,” said Rachel’s father, and Rachel noted with relief that he was losing his restiveness. “Yes, that would be fine.”

Seb, the bellman-slash-sous-chef, helped them with their bags up the stairs leading to their rooms, dispensing little details on the inn and its employees. Every member of the wintering staff at The Mountain Inn had a hyphenated job function: Chris was head chef and maintenance, Lillian was front desk and general manager, and Vivian was the baker, gardener, and keeper of the chickens. Only the cleaning staff—whose names Rachel and her father were not given—had a single job, and they were invisible, reflected only in the spotless interior.

Rachel and her father were both tired, ready for dinner and an early bedtime. A sumptuous meal of prime rib and maple glazed apples awaited them in the dining room, and Lillian opened a bottle of estate wine for Rachel’s father.

“Shall I bring a second glass?” Lillian asked.

“Oh no,” Rachel’s father said. “She hasn’t even turned nineteen.”

But Rachel was gratified to discover that Lillian or someone else had splashed some wine in her hot cider. She tried to catch Lillian’s eye to express her gratitude, but Lillian’s expression gave no indication of the charitable act.

After dinner Rachel said good night to her father and took a quick bath in the deep clawfoot tub in her room. Her bedsheets carried the light scent of rosemary and lavender, and were as inviting as if they had just come out of the dryer, or been kept warm by another body.

▴ ▴ ▴

Rachel’s father woke her early the next morning, knocking on her door while she pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. They were to hike to Cascade Falls, a “must-see for the avid hiker” according to the Miwok Valley guidebook Rachel’s father had found in The Mountain Inn’s lounge.

Lillian was waiting for them in the lobby. She steered them to a table in the eating nook where a tray of freshly baked muffins, a goosenecked carafe of steaming coffee, and a pair of white earthenware mugs awaited them. Lillian introduced the muffins with evident pleasure: ginger pineapple, sour cherry, dark chocolate with thyme from the garden, “all made in-house by Vivian using fresh eggs from our hens.”

“We’re just finishing your boxed picnic lunch,” Lillian said, “it’ll be ready for you to grab on your way out.” She backed away with a little bow, and Rachel and her father poured the coffee and selected their muffins. Rachel’s enjoyment of the muffins was dampened by her father, who made little sounds of surprise and satisfaction as he sampled each one, until relenting with a loud sigh of approval.

“Got to be careful,” he said. “These are too good. Can’t eat like this every day if I want my pants to fit.” He patted his stomach dramatically for emphasis, but his eyes drifted down to Rachel’s midsection.

It was a ten-minute drive to the Cascade Falls trailhead. Rachel’s father did not like locations that involved guesswork, and the entrance to the falls was marked only by a small dirt parking area and a single narrow trail that led into thickly gladed woods. He surged ahead of her on the trail, and as she stared at the backs of his wiry legs, Rachel was reminded of a mountain goat. He stopped now and then to let her catch up; Rachel tried to swallow her gasping breaths as he regarded her with a muted expression of triumph. When they reached them, Cascade Falls were nearly dry, reduced to oversized puddles of mud framed by mossy stones.

“Some waterfalls!” Rachel’s father said. “Are we sure this is the right spot?” He took the worn trail book and stared at its pages until he reached some point of acceptance. Despite the lack of waterfalls, the surroundings were verdantly pretty, the redwoods tall and tight around them, and they unpacked their backpacks and situated themselves on a pair of large rocks. Rachel’s father shifted around on his rock so much he dropped one of his sandwich halves on the ground. He finally settled in place with a theatrical expression.

“It’s almost funny, isn’t it?” He laughed, and Rachel knew they would talk about how “funny” it was for the rest of the day.

▴ ▴ ▴

When they got back to The Mountain Inn it was late afternoon, and they decided to rest in their rooms before dinner. Rachel fell asleep in her bed, which was once again warm and fragrant. When she woke, she sensed the absence of something—sound, light. She looked at the plug-in clock on the bedside table: its numbers had dimmed to faint eights. She turned the knob of the bedside lamp even as she knew it would not light. There was a pounding on her door.

“Rachel! Rachel!” When she opened the door, her father seemed almost angry at her, as though she had caused the outage. She squinted at him in the dark hallway.

“The power is out!” he said. “What’s going on with you?”

“I just woke up,” Rachel said. “I know the power is out.”

“How do you know if you just woke up?”

“The light wouldn’t turn on.”

“Well, let’s go downstairs and talk to the staff.”

“Both of us?”

He gave her a tight-lipped assessment and went downstairs to talk to Lillian.

▴ ▴ ▴

It was an early winter storm, unprecedented for Miwok Valley, according to Lillian. The storm had started while Rachel was sleeping, though her father, who had been awake and listening to NPR on his clock radio, was incredulous about its severity.

“It was a little windy,” he told Rachel. “But it’s always windy on the top of a mountain like this.”

Lillian told them that the weather in the town and valley below was more extreme.

“All sorts of weird stuff going on down there,” Lillian said significantly.

“What kind of weird stuff?” said Rachel’s father.

“I’m not really sure. But they’re blocking the roads off. They said it’s too dangerous to go anywhere.”

“Are you telling me we’re stuck here?” Rachel’s father asked.

“I wouldn’t say stuck,” Lillian said. “The Mountain Inn was built for any kind of weather. I guarantee your experience of rustic luxury will not suffer.”

“Don’t you have a generator?” Rachel’s father said. “A backup generator? Isn’t that standard?”

“Oh, we do,” Lillian assured him. “But nothing is working, not even the backup generator. It’s not just a freak snowstorm, but some sort of electrical event as well.”

“I don’t understand. I don’t even see any snow,” Rachel’s father said. But outside the large windows a preternaturally thick fog had engulfed Miwok Valley. The town, with its serene bay and houses with their glittering windows, was no longer visible. Rachel felt as though they were in an airplane above a cloud cover—best not to think how removed they were from the world below.

“Do you know,” Lillian said, “the last time it snowed in Miwok Valley was eighty years ago. Visitors were snowed in for an entire month. The guests and staff went snowshoeing, skied down Mount Imola, and caught deer and rabbits for their meals. That’s how we ended up with the recipe for our famous rabbit stew. Of course, it’s been made with beef for the past twenty years, though Chef Chris sometimes gets creative.”

When they were back at their rooms, Rachel’s father told her she should be prepared to leave early. It made little sense to stay here, under these circumstances.

“It’s not what we expected,” he said. “But we’re not going to stay here for a month, catching rabbits and snowshoeing. She’s full of herself, that one, isn’t she? She can’t be much older than you.”

▴ ▴ ▴

To their surprise, dinner that night was a four-course meal: salad topped with edible flowers, wild garlic soup, pork loin warmed on the gas barbecue, and Meyer lemon and blueberry ice cream for dessert. Vivian gave them seconds and then thirds of the ice cream, insisting they were doing her a favor; it would be no good tomorrow. The fire crackled in the fireplace, and stout beeswax candles covered nearly every surface of the inn.

After dinner they took their places in the chairs by the fire. Lillian came to check on them, and though they were more than full, they both ordered hot chocolates.

“Whipped cream!” called Vivian from the kitchen. “Lots of whipped cream is going on top of these!”

“You know,” Rachel’s father said to Lillian. “I think we may have gotten lucky. I can’t imagine anything better than this setting right now. If there were more people, these chairs would never be empty. And with the fire, and the candles, it’s just perfect.”

“It’s very romantic,” Lillian agreed with a nod to Rachel, and Rachel felt her smile wilt. But there was a taste of something in her hot cocoa, warming and alcoholic, and she soon felt expansive and wonderful. Her father excused himself to go to the bathroom, and Lillian perched lightly on the arm of Rachel’s chair. She nodded to the book on Rachel’s lap, which Rachel had found in the inn’s library.

“How’s your book?” Lillian said. “I think it was left behind by one of our guests’ children.”

Rachel flushed. “He also writes stories for adults. I mean, it is a children’s book, but it’s pretty clever.”

“No doubt,” Lillian said. “How old are you again? Almost nineteen?”

“Yes,” Rachel said, and she covered the book with her hands, as though she could erase Lillian having seen it. The Quentin Blake cartoon peeked out from beneath her fingers.

“I’m only a few years older than you,” Lillian said. Rachel gazed up at her, and she could see this was true, though something formative seemed to have happened in those years between them. Lillian did not have Rachel’s soft edges, and Rachel could not imagine herself in Lillian’s starched uniform, directing the workings of the inn.

Rachel’s father emerged from the bathroom and was making his way back toward them, stopping to look at the framed photos lining the hallway. He descended loudly into his chair, and Lillian, with a smile and a nod, retreated to the kitchen. Rachel’s father had found Lake Wobegon Days in the library, and its discovery had made him embarrassingly happy. His book lay open on his lap, and he was looking at Rachel as though he would say something. It was the sudden scorch of the fire or perhaps the drink she had drained to the dregs, but Rachel felt upended, her contents spilled for all to see.

“You know,” Rachel’s father finally said, opening his book, “we should just make the most of it. We have the whole place to ourselves until Wednesday. And I bet you the power comes back on tomorrow.”

▴ ▴ ▴

The power was not back on Tuesday, or on Wednesday. It made little difference; their food was still hot, the sheets still fresh and changed by invisible hands. Every corner of The Mountain Inn was lit by candlelight, casting a warm glow over their stay. Rachel and her father walked the grounds, read books by the fire, and ate meals upon meals, Vivian always insisting that seconds and thirds were necessary for the sake of the greater good.

Last month’s argument, which Rachel had thought might forever change their relationship, seemed less important. Her father bloomed in the secluded setting, basking in the staff’s collective attention and unafraid to always ask for something extra. He left little things around the lounge area: his book, his reading glasses, his bottle of water, and when Seb or Vivian tried to flag him down to return them, he would wave them off.

“I’ll be back later,” he’d say. “Might as well leave them.” He was often in the common areas, striking up little conversations with the staff as they did their work, returning to his book once his anecdotes were appropriately reacted to.

Rachel and her father had just finished up Wednesday night’s dessert of marionberry pie and taken their place by the fire when Lillian approached them, a strange expression on her face.

“I’m sorry,” Lillian said to Rachel’s father. “But your card has been declined. Do you have another one?”

“That can’t be,” said Rachel’s father. “I just paid it off.”

“I can try it again,” Lillian said. “But it was declined twice already.”

“You’ll need to try again,” Rachel’s father said. “Hold on. Why are you charging my card now?”

“We always charge halfway through a stay,” Lillian said. “And save incidentals for the end.”

“That doesn’t sound standard. I’ve never heard of a hotel doing this.”

“Well,” Lillian said, and Rachel saw there was a large spot of something, like coffee or tea, on the hip of her uniform. “We’re a boutique bed-and-breakfast, not a chain, so we do things differently. This was in the contract you signed at check-in.”

“Oh, the dreaded fine print,” Rachel’s father said. His voice had taken an edge. “And how can you even run my card with no electricity?”

“We take an imprint, and our bank does it for us. I just got word from them.”

“Well, I guess I need to go into town and talk to my bank.”

“You can’t do that,” Lillian said, “the roads are still closed. Don’t you have another card you can use? If the funds are all used up on this one?”

“You’re not listening, damn it,” Rachel’s father said, and a coolness spread across Lillian’s features. Her father was now curiously quiet, though his face was flushed.

“I’m sure there’s some explanation,” Rachel murmured. “Maybe the bank made a mistake?”

“It’s insufficient funds,” Lillian said briskly. “According to our bank. I’ll need another card.”

▴ ▴ ▴

The sun had already broken through the low-lying clouds when Rachel woke Thursday morning. She checked her watch and saw it was past nine; her father had not knocked on her door. They had worked out the issue with the credit card—Rachel’s father produced a different card, though his attitude of benevolent master of the house grew less benevolent. He was in turns sarcastic and overly familiar with the hotel staff. Rachel, mortified, retired to her room as he ordered an aperitif from Lillian, “Whatever you got.” Lillian had settled into an inscrutable state, treating both Rachel and her father with businesslike reserve.

Rachel knocked on her father’s door. There was no answer. She was gripped by a sense of uneasiness, but as she made her way down the stairs, she considered he might have gone on a walk. It was not an unwelcome absence; Rachel thought how she might talk with the staff and enjoy the muffins and coffee without his gimlet stare.

The dining area was empty when she entered.

“Hello? Hello?” Rachel called through the window into the kitchen. “Are there any muffins this morning?”

Vivian came abruptly through the kitchen’s swinging door, carrying a platter of muffins and a carafe of coffee. Her uniform, Rachel saw, bore even more stains than Lillian’s. Vivian looked at the big clock above the ledge pointedly.

So sorry for the wait, miss,” Vivian said. “Here is today’s breakfast.”

“Oh, no,” said Rachel. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to rush you. It’s amazing you’re able to make muffins at all, given the circumstances.”

“Well, it’s a gas stove and I have matches. So hot food is not the problem.”

“Lucky for us,” Rachel said with a smile, but Vivian remained unmoved. “Did you see my father this morning? He’s not in his room, but maybe he left early for a walk?”

“I have not,” said Vivian, and returned to the kitchen. Rachel found it difficult to enjoy breakfast. Her father’s absence nagged at her, and the muffins were inedibly savory, as though salt had been used in the place of sugar. She heard the inn’s heavy front door open and close and, with a start, saw her father enter, looking disheveled and dirty, like he had just rolled around on the forest floor.

“Dad?” she said. “What happened to you? Where were you?”

Her father did not answer but sat down across from her, grabbing a muffin with a filthy hand and taking a large bite. A look of distaste flashed across his face, and he poured himself a large cup of coffee, drinking it so quickly he sputtered some of the hot liquid. Vivian materialized and wiped the table with a graying rag. Rachel’s father selected a second muffin and took another bite. His face distorted, and he pulled something out of his mouth. He held the thing aloft: it was small and crescent shaped.

“Is this?” he said, turning to Vivian. “Is this—a fingernail?”

Excuse me?” Vivian said.

“I just bit into this. What is this?”

Vivian held out her hand for the crescent-shaped object and examined it. “It’s likely an eggshell. These things happen. A little eggshell, from eggs that come from chickens in our own organic garden, is likely what this is.”

“There’s something wrong with these muffins,” Rachel’s father said. Rachel shifted uncomfortably; her father looked wild, and yet there was something wrong with the muffins. “I know you get experimental with flavors, but none of these taste good. It’s like you made them deliberately unpalatable.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Vivian said stiffly. “These muffins have won The Mountain Inn the Best Baked Goods award in Miwok Valley three years in a row.”

“Best Baked Goods in Miwok Valley!” sang out a voice from the hall, and Lillian stepped into the dining area. She was beautifully made up, her uniform spotless. She gazed serenely at Rachel and Rachel’s father, who looked even more shocked by her presence than the foreign object in his muffin.

“Why do you look so clean?” he demanded.

“Why do you look so dirty?” Lillian said with a silvery laugh.

“Dad, why are you so dirty?” Rachel whispered. “What happened? Are you okay?”

“You tell me,” Rachel’s father said to Lillian. “You tell me what happened to me last night. I woke up on the lawn, being pecked at by chickens.”

Rachel saw Lillian and Vivian exchange a glance. Vivian seemed to be having difficulty suppressing a smile.

“Well,” said Lillian. “You had several aperitifs by the fire once your daughter had gone to bed. And after that you said you were going to sit on the lawn and look at the stars, and invited the staff to join you, though no one did. You must have fallen asleep out there.”

Rachel’s father’s face reddened, and Rachel stared down at her half-eaten muffin.

“Is this how you treat your guests?” he said incredulously. “Leave them to their own devices in the wilderness? How do I know you didn’t put something in my drink? I don’t remember any of this.”

“I expect not,” Lillian said. “You had quite the night. But our lawn is hardly the wilderness. Once a family even put out a tent and slept there with their children. It was great fun. A classic Mountain Inn moment.”

“That’s it,” said Rachel’s father. “You can keep your classic Mountain Inn moments. We’re leaving today. You can’t keep us here against our will.”

“I assure you,” Lillian said, “there’s nothing more important to us than your satisfaction. The good news is that the roads are scheduled to open back up tomorrow, and you can be on your way then, as originally planned. I’ll have your final bill ready by dinner.”

▴ ▴ ▴

That afternoon the lights came back on with a low zizz that made Rachel jump. Her suitcase was packed, and her clothes for the next morning laid out. She was trying to read a book on the bed that now held only her own sour scent. She had put The Witches back and selected A Brief History of Time, thinking Lillian might notice, but she couldn’t get into it. Rachel looked out the window; she could see the outlines of the Miwok Valley houses through the dissipating fog.

Rachel knocked lightly on her father’s door and was relieved to find he had shaved and changed into clean clothes, though his face was still wan.

“I’m not even hungry,” he said. “Let’s just get this over with.”

The beeswax candles had grown progressively stubbier throughout the week, and now only their pale puddles remained. The staff had turned on a few of the lights, and the remnants of a fire sputtered in the river-stone chimney.

Vivian placed two steaming bowls before Rachel and her father, and as she backed away, Lillian approached the table. Lillian was no longer in her crisp white uniform, but sleekly outfitted in a dark dress.

“For a special last night,” Lillian said. “The Mountain Inn’s famous ‘rabbit’ stew.” Rachel heard the quotation marks in Lillian’s delivery, and her stomach weakened. Rachel held her spoon aloft, peering at the steaming burgundy liquid below. She dipped through its oily dermis and stirred, releasing a gamy scent and unearthing large strands of thickly marbled meat.

“You said this is made with beef?” Rachel asked weakly.

“Mostly,” Lillian said. Rachel looked across at her father, but he was dumbly stirring his soup.

“As promised,” continued Lillian, “here is your final invoice, complete with incidentals. Your card has been charged, and you can check out any time before eleven a.m. tomorrow.” She placed a stapled stack of papers next to Rachel’s father’s bowl.

Rachel’s father brought a spoonful of soup to his lips as he looked down at the invoice, something streaming like seaweed off his utensil. The combination of the soup and the bill had a restorative effect, and he was suddenly animated.

“One thousand dollars,” he said, his voice rising. “Over one thousand dollars in incidentals! How do you explain this—this thievery?”

“These were all things that you wanted,” Lillian said. “That you ordered. All those drinks by the fire. Seconds, and even thirds, on desserts. Picnic lunches. Those are all extras that cost money.”

“You wanted us to eat all that food!” Rachel’s father exclaimed.

“Oh dear,” said Lillian. “You couldn’t have imagined that meals from our kitchen are free? Only the muffins and coffee are included in your room price. The contract clearly states this.”

“This whole stay has been a travesty,” Rachel’s father said, but there was a tremor beneath his words. “Extra charges, other guests who never show up. You’ve been practically holding us hostage. What are you even feeding us? What is in this ‘rabbit’ stew?”

Lillian didn’t answer; she just gleamed softly in the dim light, like a pearl. That was it, Rachel thought—Lillian had taken all the sand and grit people like Rachel’s father hurled at her and turned it into something beautiful. But Rachel had also seen Lillian in her grubby uniform, and she couldn’t reconcile these two things.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel’s father said, and when Rachel looked up, she saw he was speaking not to Lillian but to her. “I’m sorry. Don’t eat the soup. Let’s just have the dessert. How about you choose dessert for us? Would you like that?”

It was something he used to let her do when she was little, as a treat. Rachel wanted to choose the dessert, and she didn’t. She would rather do anything but eat that awful soup. But this was not a real choice. There was still the three-hour drive back with her father to Davis, but now she could feel Lillian’s eyes boring into her. Rachel put down her spoon and picked up the bowl of soup. She was determined to take one giant gulp in front of all of them; this would be her statement.

The sides of the bowl were scorchingly hot; she didn’t know how her father had managed to put any of it in his mouth. It was so hot Rachel couldn’t hold it; the bowl slipped out of her hands and struck the heavy wood table, shattering into a mass of shards. The soup splashed back up at her and all around, the liquid so hot that at first it felt like nothing.

“Oh!” Rachel’s father cried. “My poor thing! My poor little girl!” Just beyond her father, Lillian, her smooth face transformed by shock. They were all covered in the stinking mess that only Rachel had made.

Tanya Žilinskas lives in Northern California. Her work appears in Southern Humanities Review, Puerto del Sol, the Florida Review, Porter House Review, Meetinghouse, and elsewhere. She is working on a novel about internet conspiracies in the aughts and a linked story collection set in a surreal version of Marin County.