Authors: Lydia Millet
Tags: #fantasy, #novel, #young adult
Big Mouth House
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed
in this book are either fictitious or used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2011 by Lydia Millet (lydiamillet.net). All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2011
Sharon McGill (sharonmcgill.net). All rights reserved.
Big Mouth House
150 Pleasant Street #306
Easthampton, MA 01027
Distributed to the trade by Consortium.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011921997
ISBN: 978-1-931520-71-3 (trade cloth); 978-1-931520-41-6 (ebook)
Text set in Minion Pro.
Paper edition printed on 50# Natures Natural 30% PCR Recycled Paper by C-M Books in Ann Arbor, MI.
For Mr. Harris
About the Author
The end of August, after the summer people left, was Cara’s favorite time of year. It was still warm enough on the Outer Cape to go to the beach and run headlong into the crashing waves. And since all the cars were gone, with their blaring horns and the smog from their tailpipes, she could ride her bike along Route 6 without feeling nervous.
After two months of crowds and backed-up traffic, the loneliness of it felt like a deep sigh of relief.
Now she was riding along the top of the tall, crumbling cliffs that overlooked the long stretch of sand and blue water that was the national seashore. The wind sighed as it ruffled the wild grass and the low, scrubby pine trees. From here, though she was high above the ocean, she could still smell the salt spray and hear the faint crash of the surf. She could even make out the small figures of people below—a few end-of-summer stragglers leading their bounding dogs along the lacy white line of the tide.
Sometimes there were ships like tiny dots in the gray haze of the distant water; sometimes there was nothing there at all. Then she could imagine she was looking all the way over the end of the earth.
If the earth had an end.
Panting, she pedaled hard along the cliff trail. She was headed to Nauset Light Beach, wearing some flips and a tank top, to meet her friend Hayley; a mesh bag was stuffed into one of the bike’s saddlebags and held her swimsuit and a towel. The sand was fine and loose up here and it was hard to ride, but then, finally, the trail on the cliff’s edge turned inland for a few hundred yards and emptied into the beach parking lot.
She was struggling to catch her breath when she got off and locked her bike to an old split-rail fence. Because it was late summer, and also late afternoon, the parking lot was nearly empty of cars—just a rainbow-colored hippie van in one corner and a park ranger’s jeep in another. The red-and-white striped Nauset lighthouse loomed over the lake of pavement.
All the tourons, as her older brother Max and his friends called the tourists when they were acting cooler-than-thou, liked to stand in the parking lot to take pictures of the lighthouse. It was famous because it was near where telegraphs had been invented, or at least where the famous Marconi, who had the next beach over named after him, sent the first one across the Atlantic.
Telegraphs had clearly been more of a hassle than email, she thought, but like everything back then, cool in their own way.
The Park Service had a display on Marconi but she wasn’t that interested. Her dad had told her Marconi stole his ideas from better men like Nikola Tesla, then took all the credit himself, and anyway Marconi was a fascist-type dude. Which wasn’t too ideal.
But apparently didn’t stop them from naming beaches.
Hayley was leaning against the fence along the boardwalk. She’d lived just down the street from them ever since Cara could remember, and though she and Cara were really different they’d always been best friends. Her blond hair had tiny braids at the sides, tied with elastics whose pink matched her lip gloss and bubble gum; Hayley was addicted to lip gloss and to gum.
Cara’s dad, who called gum “that filthy habit” as if it were a new designer drug or something, had recently said Hayley was “like a gawky calf chewing her cud.”
“What took you so long?” went on Hayley. “I’ve been here for ages.”
“I had to help my dad with something,” said Cara.
The truth was she’d been crying a bit pathetically in her room. And even though she trusted Hayley, she didn’t want to overshare.
They went into the shower room to slip into their suits, Hayley’s a hot-pink bikini, Cara’s a one-piece blue Speedo she used for swim team. Hayley was on the team too, but when it came to beach apparel one-pieces were a fashion don’t, she told Cara.
They came out of the changing room to find a big gray cloud covering the sun.
“Oh. Nice,” said Hayley, shivering, and hung her towel around her neck as they headed down the wooden steps to the beach.
There were a couple of guys playing Frisbee on the sand, and an older lady reading a book, but that was it. No lifeguard on duty, and the waves weren’t big enough for surfers.
They laid down their towels and tested the edge of the water with their toes.
“It’s freezing,” groaned Hayley. “You gotta be kidding me! Like, forget it.”
The ocean-side water was always colder—your lips turned blue and you started to shiver as soon as you went in. Because the Cape was a peninsula, with one side facing out to the ocean and the other facing the Massachusetts coast, the beaches on the two sides were different. The bay side, as they called the side facing in, had warmer water, which was why they usually swam either there or in the turquoise kettle ponds that dotted the piney woods. But the bayside water was often silty, too, and full of floating debris, while the ocean-side water was clear. The ocean side also had softer, whiter sand, bigger waves, and the tall, amazing bluffs.
“I’m going in anyway,” said Cara. “Come on. Don’t be a wuss. What if I drown because I had no swim buddy?”
“That’s like emotional blackmail,” said Hayley. “I think.”
“Call it what you want,” said Cara. “Are you a man or a mouse?”
“Mouse, chick,” said Hayley. “And Miss Mousy has a magazine. But hey, you go crazy.”
She backed up and settled down on her towel, and Cara waded in and stood in a foot of frigid water looking out at the rest of the ocean. She watched the sand beneath her feet get sucked out by the tide, felt her heels sink into the hollows. After a while she splashed out farther and then dove.
As the water closed over her she thought of swimming with her mother, who always dove right into the ocean, no matter how cold it was.
Her mother. Who was gone.
It was her mother who had taught her to trust the water; now the slow pull of the tide and the water’s buoyancy helped her forget her worries a bit. She dove in and splashed out again, floated on her back and gazed up at the sky.
Last summer it had mostly been her two brothers and her at the beach, but this summer things had changed. Since Max was sixteen he could work at restaurants, so he’d been bussing tables during the high season, and even this week—though the crowds had thinned out and tips were nothing much once the stream of tourists slowed to a trickle—he was still working the dinner shift, which began in the late afternoons. It sounded like fun, in a way—all the wait staff and kitchen staff knew each other pretty well by the end of the season and now were a kind of big, squabbling family—but if Cara wanted to do restaurant work herself she still had three years to go.
Jax, short for Jackson, had just turned ten and was off at summer camp on the wildlife sanctuary on the bay, where the counselors filled the days dragging the kids around on what they cheerfully called “nature discovery walks” and “tidal flat funhikes.” He loved spending his time outdoors and lugged home backpacks full of the big, dark-brown shells of horseshoe crabs and slimy pieces of seaweed. He set them up on a shelf over his bed till her dad noticed the smell.
Jax had always been obsessed with animals, including extinct ones like dinosaurs and trilobites; he had spent a lot of time learning about them with their mother, who was a marine biologist. Memorizing large numbers of facts about obscure subjects was her little brother’s idea of fun. Jax collected information in databases that would have been impressive for a college student, much less a kid. He was a combination of techie and nature boy, though his nature-loving was pretty scientific—more anthropology than wild child or granola. He took it upon himself to carefully record the curious habits of the natives.
But since their mother had disappeared—the 20th of June, a date they’d never forget—Jax expressed his animal interest mostly by collecting live ones in his room and forgetting they were there until it was too late. Acting out, was what Max called it. Hermit crabs, frogs, once even a foot-long dead, rotting fish with skin and meat still hanging off the bones—all kinds of things were appearing in his room that shouldn’t be there. And not always in tanks or cages, either.
Her parents had adopted Jax when he was two, and by last summer her dad used to say he was nine going on ninety. Jax was different, to say the least. Sure, he was “gifted” and all that, and sometimes talked like a tenured professor—a miniature version of their dad—but it went way further than that.
Jax had certain … abilities.
She shook her head. She didn’t want to think about that right now.
School was starting in a week or so, which was cool but was also making her feel anxious. She missed her mother even more because of it—her mother who always found the time to help her buy supplies and plan for extracurriculars. This year there would only be her dad, and he was almost as busy as he was absentminded. He taught history at 4C’s, Cape Cod Community College, and was getting ready to start back for the fall semester, doing classes in European church history—“madmen, monks, and martyrs,” as he called it fondly.
He said her mother was bound to be back any day now, and Max said so, too, but Cara knew they were saying that to make her feel better. And maybe themselves too.
She realized she was blinking up at the sky. There were more gray clouds gathering, and it was getting late.
On her way back to shore, just beyond the break, she dove under again and swam underwater for one long kick, holding her breath. Right when she was about to come up for air something brushed up against her and she practically leapt out of the water. It was something with fur. What the—?
She splashed, looking around her frantically. And there it was—something brown in the water. A small, tan-and-brown head with dark, shining eyes.
It definitely wasn’t a seal—Cara had seen them plenty of times in the water from Falmouth all the way up to P-town. There were no sea lions around here, and it wasn’t one of those anyway. Maybe some kind of large rodent?
Then it flipped onto its back and floated, like it was just lounging there, paws up on its belly right beneath the chin. Its eyes seemed to be steadily focused on her. And then she recognized what it was. Not from real life, only from nature shows.
It was an otter.
But she’d never heard of otters on the Cape. Never.
She treaded water, threads of seaweed clinging to her ankles … what struck her was that the otter didn’t seem to be afraid of her at all. The eyes were so dark … it lay on its back and the eyes, she could swear, were like a person’s: they were intently fixed on her own. Beady because they had purpose, but also soft and deep.
She’d never been so close to a wild animal. It didn’t make sense; the otter should already be long gone.
“How come you aren’t afraid of me?” she whispered.
It was stupid to talk to an otter, but she didn’t know what else to try. The fur was beautiful, the face so light it was almost white, with a dark triangle of nose, and the paws a dark brown. She wanted to touch those handlike paws, posed thoughtfully together almost as if the otter was thinking. She could reach out easily; it was so near.