The following is an excerpt from a novel, in which Phoebe Elm must return home after learning her family is one of their town’s lottery winners. The big prize? For one weekend only, they can bring someone back from the dead. They choose her father.
We drive to the lake in silence, Louise at the wheel, our mother in the front seat, me wedged in the back; the tension swells within the tiny four-door like a broken leg, as Hatchett County whisks by, cornfields thick as clouds of bees. The letter the City sent Louise said the boat would arrive around ten, bringing with it the hundred chosen ‘formerly-deceased,’ including our father. On the dash in fat, blue lines, the clock reads that we’ve only got nine minutes.
Louise pulls into the Canorak Country Club parking lot, an expanse of forty or so camper-sized spaces in front of a creamy yellow mansion we could never afford a membership to. The front-facing window reveals a glass chandelier the size of the car; on the other side is the lake, bulging along the horizon.
‘Do you need to be a member to park here?’ I ask, as I slam my car door shut and hike my purse up my shoulder. A button on the strap nestles into my collarbone.
Mom adjusts the straw hat teetering on her head. ‘Who cares?’ she says.
We cut along the path stretching from the club to the docks, pussy willows sprouting up in a swarm that almost reaches my waist. Lake Canorak is blurred with an ominous mist that stretches skyward, shielding any boats or sea monsters lurking more than twenty feet from shore. The landscape is like two bickering panels: a grey fog on the bottom, trickling up to a serene blue sky that leaves the remainder of Hatchett County sparkling. Lake Canorak is never this murky in the summertime and I can’t help but think Dad will be especially unimpressed. He’ll roll his eyes and mutter, ‘Couldn’t they have gotten a fan? Fireworks?’ He and his fellow undead passengers could only come back once every ten years, and goddamn it, he’d say, the lake was more depressing than their funerals.
I squint my eyes at the muddled water. Anything could be hiding behind the mist: a wooden corner, the rounded sheen of a bubble, a scaly tail. But I’m really looking for him, for anything suggesting he’s just behind the fog, watching. Waiting. In minutes, he’ll be here again, feet planted into the wood of the dock, hands resting on his belt loops. Will his heart beat? Will his flesh dangle from his limbs, torso covered in dirt, eyes a milky white? The last time I’d spoken to him was the last time I’d looked him in the eyes, over four years ago, when he’d picked me up from the police station as I roiled in a plastic chair, the taste of seven mai tai’s still coating my tongue like a wool blanket. It was everything he could ever want: further proof I was his lowlife kid, and not just some idiot with an equally idiotic boyfriend, ‘having a good time,’ like I insisted. Like I was. His jaw had shuddered with rage and his irises were red-rimmed, as if the blood vessels splattered like spoiled tomatoes. He hadn’t left the house in weeks, his hair all but completely gone, the skin under his eyes twin empty parachutes, but he was irate enough to peel into the station at four in the morning. If he didn’t, someone might see me. What would he do then?
I was so shocked to find him swaying in the police station doorway I thought the neon-colored drinks I’d glugged were spurring hallucinations. He was so sick. The doctors at St. Gerard’s only found the tumor nestled above his brain stem a few months before because he’d fallen in the street outside his shop and someone called an ambulance, which was bad enough. Did they have any idea how much ambulances cost? Moron do-gooders. And did the paramedics really have to turn the sirens on? It was all he could talk about as he lay in the hospital, body woven with translucent tubes so he looked like a twenty-tentacled octopus.
The lump was the size of a golf ball, growing rapidly – an invasion of cells doctors couldn’t keep at bay, as if it were thousands of rebel soldiers charging across crab grass at Gettysburg. They would attempt surgery, but it probably wouldn’t help. Too progressed, as it was. C’est la vie. He was given the one-year-to-live stamp, maybe less. And they were right: one year, almost to the day, and he was gone. It would only take him nine months to slip into an irreversible coma. Only Mom had the courage to feel shocked when he died.
The path finally reaches the dock, which is so cluttered with people I can barely pick apart each head. A group by the water dons matching ‘Welcome Home Mom!’ t-shirts while another holds tightly to clusters of balloons. One family has brought a series of square posters, each with a different red and orange striped letter that spells out: ‘WE MISSED U.’ Just where the boat will dock, there’s a brass band bumping and burping a sped-up rendition of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’
We didn’t even bring flowers. I spent the morning standing in front of Louise’s floor-length mirror, tugging at the hem of the only dress I brought, willing it to reach my knees. Dad’s voice and what he might say upon seeing me echoed in my head: ‘Is that really what you’re wearing?’ When I mentioned it to Louise she said I ought to have a little more faith. Four years of death could do wonders to a person.
But why change now? He’d kept the shtick up for fifty-eight years.
‘Do you think he’ll look dead?’ I ask. ‘Like, right out of the grave?’ Is it his body or his soul that comes back? Both?
Louise shrugs. ‘He’s supposed to come back like he left.’
My mother’s head snaps up so fast, her hat slips off her head, revealing a tuft of white-blonde hair held back in a butterfly clip. ‘You watch your mouth,’ she says as her fingers flutter upwards to catch the straw brim.
‘I’m just saying,’ I say as I raise my hands. ‘Has anyone really thought this out? What if his skin is green, or his fingers are falling off?’ Memories of the two Welcome Back Weekends I’ve been alive for are clean white gaps in the folds of my brain. We didn’t go to the parade or family picnics on Lake Canorak because why would we? We didn’t win. The dead blended in; but then, it’s hard to tell the dead from the living in Hatchett County on a good day.
‘Then I’ll collect them in the bathtub,’ Mom says. ‘We’ll figure it out.’
I bite the corner of my lip, Dad’s big return playing out like a scene we’ve rehearsed for weeks: he’ll saunter down the docks, hands in his pockets with his thumbs plucked forward. He’ll look to Mom, to me, to Louise. He’ll lean in and give us each a shoulder-heavy hug, scanning Mom for new jewelry, Louise for a hickey, my breath for something cheap. Same old, same old. When I’ll say I moved to Los Angeles after he died – the land of dreams, Dad! – that I’ve stumbled into acting and landed a reasonable part or two – I’ve even got an understudy, Dad! – and that I’m so clean my ears squeak – Percocet? That’s for back pain, not excessive recreational use! – he’ll peel down my ears to look for dirt.
As if on cue, the crowd breaks into cheering, elbows jutting into sides as people clamor for a closer look at the lake. The mist has parted in half. Only a hundred or so feet from shore, a boat with the words Heaven Sent scrawled on the side has appeared. It’s as if it’s fallen from the sky without so much as a ripple. The boat cuts through the water with ease, hovering almost, moving faster than birds slicing the sky. I don’t have time to swallow before it reaches the dock, ropes lassoing out to the posts as the band shuffles into the crowd, a tuba croaking out one last welcoming burp. Someone has only just thrust a plank outward, connecting the boat to the dock, when the boat’s side door swings open and a woman emerges. A high voice from somewhere in the crowd lets out an exasperated whoop.
‘They’re coming out,’ I say, no louder than a whisper. My heart chugs with thick beats as if someone’s pounding my ribcage with a steel hammer.
Men and women file out in a thin trail from the door, slinking onto the dock and fanning out in search of their families. They don’t look dead, not really, but each one dons a getup fit for senior prom or an especially flashy church lunch. Most have on white gloves or slick suits, pearls and cravats, except for one man, who’s wearing overalls.
‘Do you see him?’ Mom asks. ‘Is he there?’
We each crane our necks, bodies balancing on tiptoes. ‘There!’ Louise shouts as she pats my shoulder with frantic taps. ‘He’s there, at the bottom.’
I narrow my eyes to where the tip of her finger leads, gaze flicking from face to face until I pause on the balding head I somehow convinced myself I’d just about forgotten. ‘Is he wearing a tuxedo?’ I ask.
He bobs through the crowd, in search of whoever’s brought him here. Does he know it’s us? What if he’s looking for that woman? Louise has begun waving with both hands, flapping her arms like a rabid crow.
‘Here he comes, here he comes,’ she says as she pets the waist of her dress.
It’s him, ambling up the docks, it’s him nudging through a tearful family who has, for whatever reason, broken into applause. And then he’s here, standing in the blank space where the crowd has split. He shrugs his shoulders to peel off the black suit hugging his frame and lifts a hand to finger the bowtie settled at the center of his neck. His skin is a healthy peach, etched with fewer worried wrinkles than I remember, his gaze darting between us with wide, bright blinks.
Only when I tilt my face to my mother, to my sister, do I realize my jaw is hanging open. Are we waiting for him to speak? Mom and Louise stay silent, eyes wild as if they’re staring into headlights. Dad’s eyes don’t dip below our faces, leaving my dress, Louise’s neck, my mother’s wrists, unexamined. I knee out the dress, fluttering the hem. Doesn’t he want to see?
A beat passes before I clear my throat and say, ‘Is that the tux we buried you in?’
‘For Christ’s sake Phoebe,’ Mom hisses. ‘Not now.’
‘Must be,’ Louise whispers. It’s still as crisp as it was for his funeral.
Nobody stretches out so much as a fingertip. Dad pulls at his starched shirtsleeves before sweeping out his hands and raising his eyebrows into expectant arches. ‘Hi dolls,’ he practically shouts as he waggles his fingers, beckoning us into his embrace. His voice, high and wiry, practically cuts the clouds. He’s actually smiling, his teeth wide as gum and pricked with sunlight. ‘Anyone know where I can get a steak?’