The Stuarts at Sea

Chapter 1



Winnie and her husband, Leo, were out for tacos, at a place which, though located in a strip mall and slim on décor, served the best Mexican food in suburban Philadelphia. Winnie had no idea it would be the last dinner of normality, before her father fell off the map.

Servers brought margaritas around on large trays, defying gravity with the heavy load, making it look graceful. There were no fruity flavors here, just the classics. Frozen or on the rocks, that was the only decision. Winnie liked on the rocks because it burned her throat in just the right way. She liked the fuzzy feeling from the glass’s salt, which stuck to her lips long after the meal was over. The tacos were small, which meant Winnie and Leo could order ten different kinds and argue over which was best. The carnitas. The cauliflower. The barbacoa.

Both of their phones sat on the table, face up. Winnie had rarely put hers away in the last three weeks, since her father left on a long-haul sailing trip to try to find an island that most knowledgeable people thought couldn’t possibly exist. He prepared well, and he’d done long hauls before. But the ocean was dangerous and full of the unknown. A boat could have unexpected problems. Weather changed quickly. She’d lived in the shadow of her father’s passion for adventure her entire life, so she knew more than she wanted to about all the things that could go wrong. Many people admired her father’s spirit. Winnie mostly disagreed, but she still wanted to answer the phone if he called.

She was also on high alert for a message from her sister, Paige. It had been weeks since Winnie heard from either family member. Paige almost never called or texted back. Both Paige and Winnie’s father lived five hours away in Pittsburgh, where Winnie grew up. Logic said there was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to worry about. Winnie and Paige were not close. There was more to it, of course, but while Winnie felt their father had given up a lot of time with their family for his explorations, Paige felt he was a hero. The sisters did not talk very regularly. And so Winnie had a constant and irrational fear that something would happen to Paige. When she focused on it, the fear was like a parasite, taking over every organ in her body, and Winnie worried they would shut down one by one.

The waiter placed their tray of tacos on the table. “Jesus, this is good,” Leo said. She loved the way he looked when he had good food in front of him, like he’d found pure joy. He was also as attractive as he’d been when they started dating, his blond hair full, pieces of it out of place in a sexy way. She felt like time had aged her. Even though Leo always told her he found her as sexy as ever, she’d noticed lately that her hair felt brittle, and her skin felt dry no matter how much fancy moisturizer she used. “Every time we come here, I’m worried it won’t be as good, but it always is.”

“We come here every week.”

“Still. It feels like lightning in a bottle.”

Winnie selected a cauliflower taco. The juices escaped and ran down her hand, then her wrist. She licked them away, as she had noticed others doing at this restaurant. The taco disappeared in three bites, and she returned to the margarita.

A notification pinged on her screen. It wasn’t her father or Paige though. Both Winnie and Leo looked, and saw that Chickens and Glitter had a new post.

“You set up notifications for her posts?” Leo asked. “I didn’t even know you could do that.”

“It helps me check less frequently if I just wait for the notifications.”

“Does it?”

He had a point.

“You can check it,” he said.

“It’s okay. I can wait until we’re in the car.”

“Seriously. It’s okay.”

She wiped her hands on a paper napkin and picked up her phone. Chickens and Glitter—real name Heidi—had just posted a photo of her sheepdogs, the luckiest dogs in the world, running through a field, a mountain backdrop stretching out behind them. It was Heidi’s third post of the day. Winnie saw the other two earlier, but she’d been at work and in a rush, so she looked at them again now. In the second-most recent post, Heidi’s five kids sat around their custom-made breakfast table, eating sausage made from their own pigs. In the last, which was actually the first posted today, the smallest daughter pulled an egg from a chicken coop while wearing a Belle costume, the morning light hitting the yellow dress angelically. Heidi’s life was almost too beautiful. Winnie felt her dopamine levels surge. She took a deep breath and put the phone down.

“I’m not trying to be a jerk here, but you know none of it is real, right?” Leo asked. “You’re too smart to buy into something like this.”

“It’s real, Leo. You’re such a skeptic. You think they’re actors or what?”

“They’re basically actors, yes. They’re real people who turn their entire world into a stage so people like you will fawn over them.”

“I’m not fawning.” She was totally fawning.

“I bet they have a ton of help. A housekeeper. Probably three nannies to keep up with all those kids.”

“They don’t.”

“Did Heidi tell you that herself?”

“Of course not.”

“Because she doesn’t know you exist.”


“Ouch?” Leo asked. “She’s an Instagram influencer with tens of thousands of followers.”

“Six hundred thousand, actually,” Winnie said, somewhat self-satisfied.

“Six hundred thousand? Maybe we picked the wrong jobs.”

He reached across the table and squeezed her hand. They never fought, not really. They almost never raised their voices, and they certainly never got into anything physical. But these squabbles had become more common in the past few years. Disagreements where Winnie could feel herself going down a dark road, but she could still easily pull back, grab the hand across the table from her, and just forget the conversation, or at least punt it for a time.

They couldn’t match Heidi’s lifestyle, but they had good jobs. Winnie worked at a giant pharma company, on the business side, branding new drugs. She’d started toward a PhD in organic chemistry, wanting to work on the research and discovery side, but she’d dropped out after earning her master’s. Now she was the person the scientists generally hated, because she made more with less training, because she didn’t know what it was like to be them, the ones making discoveries that changed, or saved, lives. Leo worked as a financial advisor, telling clients what to do with their money. Which is why, he insisted to Winnie, she should trust him. He knew what he was doing. But they had long-term goals, and Leo constantly got distracted by the newest, short-term, shiny thing. Mostly, he bid on sports-car auctions, and she rarely knew he’d bid until he won something. Until it was sitting in the assigned parking spot outside their townhouse, or until she saw the first payment leave their joint account.

Leo paid the check, not because of chivalry, but because he was the one with the credit card that offered 3 percent back on restaurant spending. Winnie watched the restaurant patrons around them—a family with three small children, two other couples—and wondered what heavy things they carried, or if they were more relaxed than she was, not filled with worry. Then she and Leo made their way to Winnie’s car, which was not as flashy as Leo’s but was still a Mercedes.

It was August, sticky. Winnie drove home, holding Leo’s hand the whole time. They kept their windows rolled up and blasted the air conditioning. Most of the drive consisted of a four-lane road, not quite a highway, then turned into a smaller two-lane street lined with expansive homes made of red brick or painted white with black shutters. The yards were generally spacious, though they grew smaller as Winnie and Leo approached their own neighborhood.

They’d benefited from an excellent economy during their twenties, their investment accounts and down-payment fund growing, but the real estate prices had also risen precipitously, and Winnie and Leo had picky taste. They did not want to renovate. They wanted turnkey, at least three thousand square feet, a significant yard and entertaining space. It might all be too much now, but they’d probably have children someday. They hadn’t fully decided, but it was what people did, what everyone around them who was their age was starting to do.

For now, their townhouse was nice, good. Most of their neighbors were either retirees or people like them, just embarking on adulthood in a serious way, wanting somewhere nice but where they could also save money. There was a community pool and gym, and the grounds were meticulous.

Winnie parked in her designated spot across the private road from their front door. She was about to turn the car off when she noticed a police car pull up in the rearview mirror. The sirens were turned off, but blue lights flashed. The officer pulled the car to the curb in front of Winnie and Leo’s house and turned off the lights and the ignition. The police car was parked in a fire lane, but the officer didn’t seem to care.

There were two officers, she could see now, as they emerged from the car. Both women, one a blonde and the other a brunette.

“That’s strange,” she said to Leo.

“What?” he asked, craning his neck to see what Winnie was looking at in the rearview mirror.

“Those police officers. Are they going to our house?”

Winnie and Leo watched as the officers walked along the sidewalk, then turned on to the path that only led to their front door.

“Why are there police officers at our house?” she asked.

“I’m sure everything is fine.”

“It’s Paige.”

“You don’t know that.”

Odds were the police were here about her father. Paige was kind of a mess, but she wasn’t into anything dangerous, not that Winnie knew of anyway. She was thirty-three to Winnie’s thirty-five, and they’d found their way at different rates, Paige notably more slowly than Winnie. It was Winnie’s heart, not her mind, that made her worried it was about Paige.

“You’re spiraling,” Leo said. He grabbed her hand again, squeezed it, and Winnie could feel her heart rate lower a bit. “Let’s go see what they want.”

▴ ▴ ▴

“Can I help you?” Winnie asked, coming up to them from behind as they stood at her front door. They looked entirely out of place, in their uniforms with their guns at their waists. Winnie didn’t think she’d ever been this close to a gun, and she wondered if Leo had. That would be something to talk about after they all figured out this was a giant mistake, that the policewomen weren’t just at the wrong house but were in the completely wrong neighborhood.

“Are you Winifred Stuart?” the blond one asked.


“Can we come inside? I’m afraid we have some bad news.”

An elderly neighbor walking her tiny chihuahua shamelessly stopped to watch the scene unfolding. She lived two doors down, but Winnie didn’t know her name. They should make more of an effort to know their neighbors, but they just never had. And now when people saw Winnie and Leo out and about, they’d talk about how the cops had been to their house, how they might be up to no good.

The policewomen let Winnie and Leo pass, and Leo unlocked the door. His hands were shaking.

“Of course. Come in,” Winnie said. She scooted in the door first, her heart thumping in her chest. Their place was a mess since she hadn’t been expecting visitors. The police had probably seen way worse, but still Winnie picked up the throw pillows on the floor and patted them back into their places. She swooped up two empty glasses from the coffee table and took them through to the kitchen, calling behind her to ask if the women wanted anything to drink.

“We’re good, thanks.”

“Let me make you something. Coffee, or tea? I can put water on.” Heidi would offer them something. She would have a homemade banana bread or lemon cake at the ready, on a rustic yet dainty plate, maybe something embossed with tiny roses.

“Winnie, come on,” Leo called back. “Sit down. They’re not here to be entertained.” His voice was impatient, and Winnie understood.

Winnie and Leo sat on the couch, and one of the women had to sit there with them, since there was just the couch and an oversized chair. The thinner woman, the brunette, sat in the chair, and it looked like it might swallow her.

The brunette began, and Winnie wondered if they had worked out beforehand who would say what. Probably they had.

“I’m Sergeant Daniels,” she said, “and this is Officer Adams. I’m afraid we have some bad news about your father, Peter Stuart? You’re aware he was on a sailing trip?”


“Yes, but it’s not really a trip. More of an expedition.”

“Right. Well, the Coast Guard received a distress call from his vessel yesterday, and we haven’t heard from him since.”

“That’s not unusual,” Winnie said, her shoulders relaxing now. “He goes off the grid. It’s part of the appeal. I don’t get it, but he’s always been like this.”

“I don’t think you understand. Ms. Stuart, your father has disappeared.”

“He hasn’t though. This is what he does. And Elsie’s with him. I’m sure they’re fine.”


“My stepmother. Well, they never got married, but she’s basically my stepmother.”

“You mean Elizabeth McCabe,” the blond one chimed in. “We’re aware she was with your father. We have reason to believe their lives are in danger. The Coast Guard is trying to re-establish communication, but we need to tell you, the chances are slim.”

“What chances are slim?”

“The chances you’ll see your father again,” the brunette said. It was blunt, direct. Some people would’ve said this woman didn’t have the bedside manner necessary to dole out bad news, but Winnie appreciated it. There was no need to sugarcoat anything. But also, Winnie knew these women were wrong.

“Listen, I get how this looks,” Winnie said. “But he does this all the time. He goes off the grid for weeks, sometimes months. He’s not supposed to be back until a few weeks from now.”

“Like we said, we received a distress call. He might not contact you, but he’s registered with us. Most people register with the Coast Guard in case this sort of situation comes up.”

“What sort of situation?”

“If there’s trouble. If you’re registered, it’s easier to be found.”

“But you said the chances are slim.”

The brunette looked to her blond counterpart, who nodded. “The ocean is a big place,” the brunette answered. Winnie noticed now that the brunette had one long hair climbing down her cheek from a mole. She wanted to reach out and grab it, to pull it out.

Winnie felt a surprising sense of betrayal that her father registered with the proper authorities, even as she was glad that he was being as responsible as possible taking what, to her, always seemed like a stupid risk. Her father described going off-grid like it would’ve been back in the sixteenth century, when men would fall off the map for months or years at a time, without a word home. Then they’d emerge victorious, and everyone would cheer, until the final time when they didn’t. Her father wanted that same glory, and so when he was gone, Winnie and Paige barely communicated with him. Never for years, but for weeks or months. Winnie had assumed he didn’t communicate with anyone else either.

But these women were not the Coast Guard. What did they know about her father’s chances? They were policewomen in suburban Philadelphia.

“We can put you in touch with the Coast Guard,” the brunette continued.

“They’ll manage the search?” Leo asked. He had said nothing this whole time. Winnie had almost forgotten he was there.


“Why aren’t they here talking to us now? Why is it you?”

“Sir, we do what we’re told. Typically, it’s better to find out this kind of information in person, so they sent us.”

Leo nodded. “Does Paige know?”

“Shit,” Winnie said.

“That’s your sister, right? Someone is heading to her home as well.”

“You need to stop them. I need to tell her. They’re close, Paige and my father. She’s going to freak out.”

“The local authorities are on their way, but you can try to reach her first.”

The absolute last thing she wanted to do was call Paige and tell her their father had disappeared. She wasn’t even sure what that meant, and it seemed these policewomen didn’t know either. But it had to be her, even if she wasn’t that close to Paige.

It wasn’t Winnie’s fault that she and Paige weren’t close anymore. Winnie wanted it more than anything.

Winnie was close to Leo, of course, but there was something you couldn’t re-create with anyone other than a sibling, something in Winnie’s whole body. With Leo, she felt comfortable enough to walk around naked, to pee in front of him. But it had taken a long time. Her closeness with Paige was something more intrinsic. Together, as kids, they would wrestle. They would fall asleep on top of each other on the couch. They would run through tall grass holding hands, without thinking about ticks until later that evening, when their father would make them lift their arms to the sky to make sure nothing was hiding in their armpits.

Of course they wouldn’t do any of those things anymore, but now they could barely hold a conversation on the phone. Now she mostly heard any news about Paige from their father. But the closeness seemed to lurk somewhere in her body, just lying dormant until Paige chose to activate it, chose to pick up the phone and call or text Winnie.

“Okay,” the brunette said. “I’ll let the others know you’re trying to get ahold of your sister first, assuming they haven’t told her already.” With that, she stood, and her partner followed. They walked to the door.

“Are you sure I can’t get you anything?” Winnie offered, and everyone including Leo looked at her like she was crazy. Leo wanted these people out of here, and they wanted to leave.

But Winnie had been spending way too much time on Instagram, contemplating buying the same hand-thrown ceramic mugs Heidi owned, and this felt like an opportunity to extend effortless hospitality, as she imagined Heidi would.

The officers handed Winnie their business cards on the way out the door, and Leo wrapped Winnie in his arms as soon as they were alone. “Are you okay?”

“I need to tell Paige.”

“I know, but you can take a minute to process this yourself first.”

“I think it’ll take longer than a minute.”

Leo let out a small snort, then immediately looked like he felt bad about it. Winnie smiled, releasing the pressure building up around him. He laughed when he was nervous.

“Do you want me to stay?” he asked. “I can tell her.”

“No, it’s okay. I want to do it. Go upstairs. I’ll come up after I talk to her.”

“I’ll leave you to it then.” He gave her another squeeze before fully letting go.

Winnie nodded. Leo went upstairs, and Winnie grabbed her phone from her purse and sat down on the couch. She pulled up Paige’s contact and hit call. The phone rang once, twice, three times. Please, please answer, Paige.




Chapter 2



Paige found out about her father at a beer garden she frequented.

That day, she was meeting Molly there. Paige arrived first and beelined to the bar. There were four beers on tap, all by the same featured brewery. Many breweries had sprouted up in Western Pennsylvania in recent years, but this one was Molly’s favorite, which was why Paige had suggested they meet there. She needed somewhere good, somewhere Molly would unwind, so she’d hopefully receive Paige’s ideas in a favorable light. Paige ordered two different IPAs and used the shiny white credit card machine to pay. Her phone vibrated in her pocket, but her hands were full.

She grabbed two Adirondack chairs by the firepit. There were eight Adirondack chairs in all, all of them empty. The fire wasn’t lit yet, but people would be fighting over these seats later. For now, it was too early, and too hot. Paige wore jean cutoffs and a sheer tank top, and still she was sweating. She pulled her phone from her pocket to see whose call she’d missed. Just Winnie, who made a big deal out of everything, who called Paige too often. Maybe she’d call Winnie back later, or maybe she’d ignore her like she usually did. She couldn’t take the judgment, which was never stated directly but which infused every word Winnie ever said to her.

Molly swooped in like a tornado. It was one of the things Paige liked best about her on-again, off-again girlfriend. She was so present everywhere she went, her deep red hair announcing her arrival. Paige was jealous of that hair. She and Winnie had inherited their mother’s bland, straight, brown hair.

“Which is which?” Molly asked, looking at the beers balanced on the arms of Paige’s chair.

“Honestly, I forget.”

“Doesn’t matter. I like all the ones from here.” Molly grabbed the cup in Paige’s right hand and Paige kept the other. She gave Paige a kiss on the forehead before she sat down. “What a ridiculously gorgeous day.”

Molly was a visual artist. She made things out of other things. A doghouse made of human furniture. A boat made from fishing rods. A giant sculpture of a cup of coffee made from beer bottles, with an accompanying sculpture of a beer made of used coffee grounds. All in the name of showing society’s obsession with the artificial. Paige oftentimes didn’t understand Molly’s work, but the moneyed elite snapped up any new pieces as soon as Molly made them.

“Is this a date?” Paige asked.

“What? No. I don’t think so. But you’re the one who asked me out. So, is it a date?”

Paige laughed. “You just kissed my forehead. That’s why I asked.”

“Was that weird?”

“Only because we’re not dating right now.”

“Last I checked, you dumped me.”

“Fair,” Paige said. She wouldn’t use the word dump necessarily. It was more of an existential freakout about how her life was going. But it was true that Molly was typically the one wanting Paige to commit, not the other way around.

“Anyway, tell me,” Molly said. “You sounded like it was something ominous.”

“Did I? I thought I sounded breezy.”

“You didn’t.” Molly laughed.

“I don’t know. I think that’s my problem. I don’t know what I’m thinking, and I need you to help me figure it out.”

“You’re such a verbal processor.” A light breeze passed through, and Molly’s curls bounced.

“Now that sounds ominous.”

“It just means you like to figure things out by talking about them.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, trust me. You do.”

Molly would know. In addition to sometimes dating, or hooking up, or often having zero boundaries between them, she’d been Paige’s best friend for almost a decade. They met when Paige was in college, after Paige’s longtime roommate unexpectedly dropped out of school under mysterious circumstances junior year. Paige never heard from the roommate again, even though they’d been pretty good friends. Molly was looking to get out of a nightmare living situation with an ex-boyfriend. Molly wasn’t a student—she was twenty-five and working in a lab on campus—but Paige lived off campus, so it wasn’t a problem. Molly moved in, and while they were not perfectly suited as roommates and hadn’t lived together since, they both realized quickly that they were very important to each other.

“Anyway, what’s up?” Molly asked.

“I need a change.”

Molly took a sip of her beer, then sat up straighter. “Okay, what are you thinking? New job? New tattoo? New relationship?”

“None of those things.”

“I thought it would be a new job.”

“My job is fine.”

“You can do better.”

“You sound like Winnie.”

Though it was probably true. Paige currently worked for a mid-tier real estate firm. She mostly helped with listings and other copy, but she was trying to learn graphic design too. She didn’t love it, but she liked it, and most days, that was enough.

“I was hoping you’d get another tattoo,” Molly suggested with a jovial wink.


“Yeah. You got a few ten years ago and then just stopped.”

“You don’t even have any tattoos.”

“Yeah, but I’m not a tattoo person.”

“You’re an artist,” Paige said. “They’re generally the ultimate tattoo people.”

Molly shrugged.

“Anyway, I think I want to commit to something,” Paige said. “To a project.”

“What kind of project?”

“This is going to sound crazy.”

“It won’t,” Molly said. She sounded sincere.

Paige had asked Molly here for exactly this, to tell Molly about her idea. But now words failed her.

More people were starting to trickle into the beer garden. Three kids who looked like siblings, all with very white, very curly hair were playing with the giant Jenga. They weren’t playing the game. Their mother had taken the game down from the equally giant barrel on which it sat and lined the blocks up on the grass. Now the children were building a tower. A reverse game of Jenga.

“So, there’s this abandoned housing development a couple of hours from here.” She looked at Molly for some sort of response, but of course Paige hadn’t given her enough to go on. “I think they started building it and then ran out of money or something. Or, they finished it but the township was supposed to fix the very broken road to get there, and they never did, so now it’s abandoned. I can’t figure out which story is true. Either way, it looks unfinished now, or dilapidated.”

“You probably can’t figure it out because there are more than one of these stories. More than one abandoned housing development.”


“People are so stupid,” Molly said. “We don’t have enough problems, so we create new ones.”

“Yes, exactly. That’s what I’ve been thinking. And it’s so bleak, right? Because we can’t do much about it. But then I asked myself, what if I could fix this one thing, this one problem?”

“Fix it how?”

“Buy the development. Fix it up.”

“You want to be a real estate developer?” She took another sip of beer and let out a whistle. “This is not where I saw this conversation going.”

“No. The developers are the bad guys. I want to turn it into something else. Rescue it. Resurrect it.”

“You know that sounds cultish, right?”

“Does it?”

“Absolutely. What are you going to do with it? And how are you going to afford it?”

“It’s only three hundred thousand dollars, for the whole thing. I could barely get a house for that here. Look.” Paige picked her phone up. There was another missed call from Winnie which she ignored, though worry built inside her now. She pulled up the listing, which she’d already had open because she looked at it multiple times per day, and handed the phone to Molly.

“Yeah, but you can live in a house. This place doesn’t look habitable,” Molly said. She swiped through, studied each picture. She handed the phone back to Paige.

“I can live there.”

Molly leaned back and stretched her arms to the sky. “I want to be supportive. I do. But this just seems so…”

“Excellent?” Paige asked, smiling.

“I was thinking more…random. This seems random. Did you talk to your dad about it?”

“No, he’s not back yet.”

“You made him a PowerPoint or something, didn’t you?”

Paige laughed. “No, I did not. But of course I want his opinion.”

“You’re thirty-three, Paige. You should do what you want to do.” With that, Molly stood up, and Paige thought she was so flummoxed with her she might leave. “I need more beer for this conversation,” she said, and walked toward the bar. There was a line, and Paige leaned back in her chair and put her feet up on the firepit. A man and a woman sat in two of the other Adirondack chairs now, close enough to hear her conversation with Molly. She wondered how crazy she sounded to them, but her father had done crazy things his entire life, and he always told her that if other people thought you were crazy, you were probably doing something right. The crazier the thing seemed, the more rewarding it probably was.

Right now, her father was on a long-haul sailing trip, a trip he’d wanted to take for his entire adult life. He was due back in two to three weeks. They never knew exactly when he’d return, since it depended on the conditions he faced, but Paige always knew exactly how long he’d been gone. Today was Day Seventeen. He was following in the footsteps of Jack Ruddy, his favorite twentieth-century explorer, who claimed he’d found an island that was a portal to another world. Jack had visited the island three times, then disappeared on his fourth trip there. His body had never been found, and no one else had ever been able to locate the island. Most people thought Jack Ruddy was a fraud. But not Paige’s father, Peter. He thought Jack Ruddy had experienced something totally unique, and Peter wanted to experience it himself and to validate Jack’s claims to the public.

Paige’s stepmom, Elsie, was on the trip too, a late addition. She’d never joined one of Peter’s trips before—and there’d been many of varying degrees of difficulty and remoteness—but they both thought that if two people saw the island, two in addition to Jack, then others would be more inclined to believe it existed.

Paige envied her father. She thought he was a hero, but Paige often wondered if he loved Jack Ruddy more than he loved her or Winnie. Or maybe he loved the idea of Jack. It was a strange feeling, to be a human but to feel inferior to an idea.

Molly returned and handed a beer to Paige. It tasted different than the one she’d had before, headier. “Thanks.”

“You know it’s not alive, right? The property? That it’s just some crappy mistake a rich person made?”

“I know,” Paige said. “But they’d still be taking a huge loss if I buy it, so they still learn their lesson. And I’ve just been thinking a lot about how we’ve fucked up the world, and how we keep fucking it up more. What if I can take one piece of it, and fix it?”

“And do what? Turn it into a natural utopia?” The words might’ve been sarcastic coming from someone else. It was such an outlandish idea. But Molly was sincerely asking.

“Maybe. I don’t know yet.”

“Even if you do that, you’re taking housing offline. It’s so complicated. People need housing.”

“I get that. But the housing system is broken. And like you said, it doesn’t look habitable now. It’s not like I’m kicking people out.”

“Why there? Couldn’t you find something closer to home?”

“I can’t explain it,” Paige said. “Something about it is calling to me. I came across photos on Twitter, and the post didn’t say where it was. It was just one of those accounts that post photos of abandoned places that make you feel like time is this strange, nebulous thing, you know? Where you could’ve gone to that mall, or that school, if you were born fifty years earlier.”

“I’ve never seen this side of you before. It’s weirdly sexy.”

Paige laughed.

“Do you ever think about how the entire world is on fire? And how everything seems pointless?” Paige asked.

“Jesus, not really.”

“I do. Too much.”

“Maybe you should talk to someone.”

“I’m talking to you.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Molly said. “Do you need money?”

“Jesus, no, I’m not telling you this because I need your money.”

“You said it’s three hundred thousand dollars. You don’t have three hundred thousand dollars.”

“I am not asking you for a cent. I just wanted to tell you.” Because, Paige wanted to say, it’s like a thing doesn’t happen until I tell you about it. Because I can’t make any decision without you and my father weighing in. “I’ll figure something out.”

“Okay, well, let me know if you change your mind. I’m happy to loan you money.” Molly came from a wealthy family. Paige didn’t know details, amounts, or how much of that family money Molly had access to. But she knew people didn’t use the phrase family money unless they had a lot.

“I have two other concerns,” Molly said.

“What’s that? That I won’t be around as much?”

“Of course. But more than that. You’ve never been that far away from home.”

“It’s two hours.”

“My point stands.”

Molly was right. Paige had lived in a suburb north of Pittsburgh her entire life. She’d lived with her father and stepmom for years even as an adult, and all her apartments had been within ten miles of her childhood home. Nearly every day she drove by the elementary school she’d attended, so much she never noticed, until Winnie came for her infrequent visits and remarked over and over how weird it was that Paige still existed in this world. Paige hadn’t planned it that way. She’d just never had a reason to leave.

“I can do it.”

“I know you can. The second, more major one is, you’re not handy. Like, at all. When we lived together, you had me do everything that required even a screwdriver or a hammer. I’m not sure what you’ve done since, but I bet you call your dad, don’t you?”

“Fine, yes, I call my dad. But I can learn. There’s YouTube.”

Molly scoffed. “Okay. Well, you can figure it out on YouTube, in an area that probably has no Internet connection to speak of. Or, I can come with you.”

“You’re not handy either.”

“I’m handier than you are. Besides, I’ve been looking for a change too, and it’ll be fun to figure it out together. Will that be too weird?”

“Why would it be weird?” Paige asked.

“Because we haven’t lived together in a decade.”

“Since before we started fucking.”

“How messed up is that? We lived together and didn’t fuck, and then started fucking when it wasn’t nearly as convenient?”

“I think that’s common. But usually people fuck, then move in together, then stop fucking.”

“Let’s move in together and see what happens.”

“You know that’s not why I brought this up, right? That it’s not some grand plan to get you back?” Paige asked.

“Of course. If that was your plan, it’d be a heck of a way to go about it. But seriously. I need a new project too. I’ve been blocked. Maybe moving to a new place will shake something loose.”

It hadn’t been her plan, but Molly would be helpful, and Paige always wanted her around. Everything was better when Molly was there. “Let’s do it,” Paige said. “Seriously. I’d love for you to come. I’m sorry I didn’t bring it up earlier.”

Paige almost felt like she had it all figured out. This was a good next step. There would be things to figure out, particularly financially. At least at the beginning, maybe they could go back and forth. Or, she worked remotely a few days a week already. Maybe she could work remotely full-time, once she figured out the Internet problem, because Molly was probably right about that.

A Nerf football hit Paige’s beer and almost knocked it clear out of her hand. A father ran over to her, holding his three-year-old under his armpit, apologizing profusely and handing her a stack of napkins. It was one of the blond kids from reverse Jenga. They retrieved the ball from Paige’s feet and departed. She dabbed at her shorts, and when she brought her face back up, Molly’s face was two inches from her own. “I’m excited,” Molly said, and then she kissed Paige. First, a quick one, and then, a longer one, with tongue slipped in.

Paige was too shocked to pull away. They never made out in public, even when they were officially together, which, right now, they most certainly were not. Then her phone began to buzz in her pocket. She ignored it, but it buzzed again. And again. And eventually she had to pull her mouth out of the kiss because mentally she had already disappeared, distracted.

“I’m sorry,” she said to Molly. “Someone keeps calling. I want to make sure it’s not my dad.”

“No worries.”

Molly leaned away, and Paige took the phone from her pocket.

It was Winnie. This time, Paige answered.

Jenny Belardi is an alum of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference and of Pitch Wars. She’s been a semifinalist in the American Short Fiction Contest and has been longlisted for the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards and the Pen Parentis Fellowship. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she’s the chief advancement officer at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. You can find her on Instagram @belardijenny.