Sunday Serial: Virgin Territory, Ch. 1
Gary saw a pair of feet sticking out from a stand of cattails along the beach. He squinted in the moonlight to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. Then he dropped the garbage bag he’d been using to pick up litter deposited by the storm this morning and ran towards the feet. As he approached, his stomach turned queasy at the thought of what state the body belonging to these feet might be in.
He stopped and looked up at the half-dozen cottages along Dagger Lake still occupied at this time of year. He should go up to one of his neighbors to call for the sheriff. Better for the professionals to deal with this situation. No, he couldn’t wait for help to arrive. If this person was still alive, he or she might need urgent medical attention. He needed to know more about the situation before involving the police.
As he started to run again, the feet became two slender, hairless legs as white as the flurries that had begun to fall. Next, he made out a narrow waist and then a flat stomach. The steady rising and falling of the stomach erased his fears about finding a mutilated corpse.
He stopped again when he saw a pair of breasts not much bigger than Andrea’s when she’d first shown hers to him on her sixteenth birthday. The realization there was a naked girl on the beach paralyzed him. He didn’t want to risk approaching her and then have her think him a pervert trying to rape her. Yet, he couldn’t just leave her to freeze out here. According to the Houghton Lake Resorter, temperatures would drop to twenty-three degrees tonight; the girl would get frostbite if she stayed out here naked for too much longer.
He finally reached the stand of cattails and knelt down beside the girl. She wasn’t much bigger than a child; she couldn’t be more than twenty years old. He brushed away black hair to reveal a face as pale and slender as the rest of her except for a pair of red lips. She looked like Snow White waiting for the kiss from Prince Charming. He resisted the urge to kiss those lips, instead putting a hand on her cheek. He drew his hand back at the coldness of her skin. How long had she been out here?
She hadn’t woke up at his touch, so he tried shaking her shoulder. When she still didn’t react, he slapped her lightly on each cheek. In a final act of desperation, he went down to the lake to cup some icy water in his hands. He splashed the girl’s face with the water, but she didn’t even flinch.
Again he looked up at the other houses, wondering where she might have come from. None of his elderly neighbors had mentioned a granddaughter or niece of her description. With the storm earlier in the day, no one had been holding any kind of parties. He had never seen her around town before and no tourists came to Dagger Lake after Labor Day if they were smart. Where had she come from?
He felt around the cattails for a purse, wallet, or at least some clothes that might give him a clue. He found nothing except a flattened beer can, its markings obscured by grime. The can explained everything. If he could smell, no doubt the stink of alcohol on her breath would knock him over. He thought of Kim Loomis—Andrea’s best friend at Eastern Michigan—who had passed out on the futon of their apartment every Sunday morning after a weekend of partying.
He would have to take the girl back to his cabin to sleep it off until she could tell him who she was and how she’d gotten here. He took off his jacket to cover the girl. Then he scooped her off the beach, amazed at how little she weighed.
Gary started towards his cabin, hoping the girl didn’t wake up en route and start screaming. She didn’t move or make a sound, even when he stumbled on a coffee can filled with cement that had broken away from someone’s boat and ended up on the beach. She’s really out of it, he thought.
He climbed the front steps of the cabin his father and grandfather had built forty years ago and took the girl into the master bedroom. She didn’t react at all when he eased her onto the queen-sized bed and slipped the jacket off. He took a step back to watch her sleeping on his bed so soundly and then flushed with embarrassment for staring.
In the closet, he dug through boxes of clothes his parents had left behind seven years ago and found an old flannel nightgown of Mom’s. The nightgown was at least three sizes too large for the girl, making her look like a child playing dress-up. He couldn’t resist planting a paternal kiss on her cold forehead before tucking her in. From the closet he took out one of Grandma’s old quilts to help the girl warm up.
Then he retreated to the living room to turn up the thermostat as much for himself as for her. In the kitchen, he made a can of soup on the stove, the steaming liquid warming his entire body. He left half the pan to reheat for the girl later.
If the girl woke up, she would want coffee and aspirin for her hangover, but the only coffee in the house was a jar of freeze-dried stuff older than him. Instead, he heated the teakettle and made a mug of hot chocolate for himself. The girl would have to settle for cocoa and generic Tylenol.
He took his mug of cocoa into the bedroom and pulled up a chair. If she woke up during the night, he wanted to be in the room to reassure her nothing bad would happen. As the minutes passed by and she still didn’t wake up, he thought of how many times he’d sat in almost this same position, watching Andrea sleep in their Ypsilanti apartment. Now that he thought of it, the girl looked a lot like Andrea. A bit shorter and thinner, and Andrea hadn’t worn her hair so long, but this girl could easily pass for Andrea’s little sister. Except Andrea didn’t have a sister. For all he knew, Andrea could have children of her own by now, though not one as old as this girl.
When the girl stirred, he held his breath in anticipation, but she only rolled over onto her right side. Andrea had slept on her right side too. “That way I can wake up and see you,” she liked to say. In those days he’d slept on his left side, but now he preferred to sleep on his back so he woke up to the ceiling instead of an empty spot on the mattress.
He took the empty mug into the kitchen to soak. The girl was still on her right side as he sat down again. He watched the rhythm of her breathing beneath the heavy blankets until his eyelids began to sag.
He didn’t know at what point he fell asleep, but when he woke up, he found the bed empty. He lunged out of the chair and frantically searched the house. He didn’t find her in the living room, kitchen, or his old bedroom—now used as his office during tax season. Then he burst into the bathroom and saw her standing in front of the mirror.
The look on her face reminded him of the haunted expression that came over his grandpa’s face whenever someone mentioned World War Two. Shell-shocked was the word his father had used. The girl stared into the mirror, looking absolutely shell-shocked. He cleared his throat and tried to think of some way to explain. “I found you on the beach last night. I thought you’d be safer here. My name’s Gary Sinclair.” He held out his hand, but she didn’t look away from the mirror. “If you want to call anyone, there’s a phone in the kitchen.”
When she didn’t answer, he wondered if she was retarded or an escaped mental patient. He cleared his throat again and asked, “Do you live around here?” She shrugged. “What’s your name?”
She finally turned and said, “I don’t know.”
The story continues next Sunday with Chapter 2. On Tuesday another Terrible Tip entitled: Audience of None.