Illustration by Arne Bellstorf.
This piece originally appeared in McSweeney’s 63. To read more from this issue, subscribe by July 15.
The wind snapped and whipped as the reeds whispered. Louisa hurried onto the patio with the wooden cheese board, slipping past Mitsuki, who stood in the sliding doorway admiring the silver-sheen lake, a bottle of Bordeaux clutched in his fist. Inari was already seated at the picnic table, waiting for the other three to gather. She held her Hasselblad to her eye and scanned the shore. Louisa settled the cheeses, kissing Inari atop her blond head.
“Voilà,” Louisa said with a flourish, waving her hands. “Cheeses. We have a grand assortment.”
“What we have is gloom,” Mitsuki said, coming all the way out of the lake house. He rounded the table, fishing a wiggly bottle opener from his pocket: a five-dollar contraption he’d gotten from the hardware store before it burned down. “The weather leaves something to be desired.”
Louisa ignored him. She asked, “Where’s Lucien?”
“In the bathroom.” Mitsuki filched a crumb from the block of Stilton. “We’ll wait for him; don’t worry.”
As she sat, Louisa took the oatmeal-colored throw from her own shoulders and draped it around Inari’s, freckled from the long summer. Inari reflexively took one end and spread it around Louisa—squeezing her arm, kissing her ear.
“You two.” Mitsuki held the bottle between his legs, slowly twisting out the cork. “You know, I never thought I would be single by the end. I always thought I’d have someone. Even just to be able to choose. Like having someone to kiss on New Year’s.”
No one said anything. Louisa and Inari knew of the sneaky intimacies that had occurred between Mitsuki and Lucien on the drive north to the Upper Peninsula, where the group had decided to spend their final days. It was silly, Louisa felt, that Mitsuki and Lucien even bothered to hide it, though hiding it did help to preserve the group’s fragile social fabric; it would be another thing if Mitsuki’s feelings for Lucien were requited. Mitsuki loved him. Lucien took advantage of that fact, which Louisa thought was cruel. But why bother arguing? There was no use in it. “Trauma fatigue” is what the discourse called it; for the last few years, the group of friends had all burned themselves out, and now here they were, at the lake house Inari’s aunt and uncle had left after killing themselves the previous winter.
The house still smelled of her aunt and uncle, Inari had said when they’d arrived a few days before. She’d wandered in, the others trailing behind her — no locked doors, no locked windows — and Louisa had rushed to take Inari’s hand, wanting to comfort her wife. They’d chosen rooms — Louisa and Inari, Mitsuki, Lucien, and a spot in the kitchen for two dog bowls. Kitty, Mitsuki’s Australian shepherd mix, slept with him in his room and roamed the grounds; she seemed exhausted but, unlike the humans in her midst, had no reason to fake enthusiasm, and spent most of the day in bed.
Outside, Louisa, Inari, and Mitsuki drank wine from dusty glasses they’d found in the kitchen, and eventually Lucien appeared. He was six foot four and scruffy in wire-rimmed glasses, dressed in matching piped pajamas.
“Is this the party?” he asked.
They nodded. Mitsuki, sitting in the center of an otherwise empty bench, was too shy and smitten to scoot aside. Sensing this, Louisa jumped up and switched sides so that Lucien could sit with Inari. He hunched with both elbows on the table, tilting his glass so Mitsuki could pour it full.
“To friends,” Lucien said.
Everyone lifted their glasses, blinking in the bitter breeze.
Inari took a sip. Louisa could see that she was careful not to touch or look at Lucien, pretending he wasn’t there. Lucien was unaccustomed to being disliked and, in fact, found it as confusing as differential equations, which he’d failed in undergrad; Louisa had tutored him that summer, bringing his grade to a C. Inari’s curly hair flew back. She squinted and cocked her chin, pointing it over Mitsuki’s shoulder. “You can see it pretty clearly now,” she said.
Mitsuki and Louisa turned. The shadow in the sky hung like a thumbprint on a poorly developed photograph.
Mitsuki turned back first. “I hate to look at it,” he said.
Louisa kept staring into the heavens. If she stared long enough, a flickering, psychedelic light danced around the shape’s ragged edges. She kept looking until Inari said, “Louisa, I’m talking to you,” and then she came back down to earth.
When Louisa found Inari after washing up, she was sitting on the floor next to the bed, smoking, in an oversize T-shirt and ragged sweatpants, and Louisa’s face and hands were still damp. It had been a long time since either of them had smoked, and even longer since they’d done so indoors. But why not? was the answer to any of these questions — why not, why not be terrible and ruinous to their own bodies when it would all end soon enough? Louisa sat beside Inari and extended her hand for the Parliament. They shared it in peaceable silence; Louisa remembered, by the time it was over, why she had ended the habit. Her lips felt like they were made of ash, and her breaths were shallow. Yet she accepted the next cigarette as well, ravenous for any kind of hedonism she could get.
“I feel sorry for Mitsuki,” Inari said.
Louisa exhaled a long plume. “Lucien knew Mitsuki was crazy about him. Mitsuki’s always been crazy about him.”
“I know. It’s sad, is all.”
“Well, Lucien’s never exactly been a careful person.”
Inari said, “Mitsuki’s heartbroken. It’s obvious in the way he mopes around all day. And I don’t like how you can just excuse Lucien like that. He’s careless — well, it’s shitty to be so careless.”
“Soon,” and here Louisa pressed her lips against her own bare and bony knee, “it’s not going to matter anymore.”
“It matters to Mitsuki,” Inari said, but she didn’t pursue the issue further.
By one in the morning neither of them had slept yet, though they’d fucked for hours and dozed and taken a bath together in questionable water. (“It’s rust,” Louisa had insisted.) Inari took a puzzle out of her suitcase and they spread the pieces on the floorboards. When the puzzle was finished, it was supposed to look like a bouquet of peonies.
“Is seven hundred and fifty pieces a lot for a puzzle?” Louisa asked.
“It’s for ages eight and up,” said Inari.
Louisa carefully separated the pieces of the puzzle that looked like they were from the edges. Inari tucked one knee up so Louisa could see her simple black underwear, her preferred undergarments because they could hide any stains. So many of the puzzle pieces were pink; Louisa supposed the activity was meant to be meditative, but she found it dull, if not irritating. After half an hour all she’d managed to do was pick out the unseparated pieces from the box. Pink, pink, pink.
“I think I’m actually seven,” she finally said, giving up. She rocked back onto her ass against the bed.
Inari didn’t stop working on the puzzle; she’d assembled one long corner with a thick edge. Nor did she look up when Louisa pulled on her puffy coat and opened the door.
The sky glittered in the darkness, and the white moon gleamed too. Louisa walked down to the lakefront in her bare feet. The lake itself was glassy, still as death. No boats tied up to any docks. No birds crying out any lonesome songs.
Louisa reached into her pocket and pulled out a sandwich bag full of her mother’s ashes. She pressed her fingers into the silt and felt shards of bone.
Slowly she waded into the water. The lake was warmer than she’d expected; it felt almost like nothingness, the embrace of a blank and empty dream. She opened the sandwich bag and overturned it, dumping the contents into the water.
Mitsuki watched from the kitchen window while Louisa scattered the ashes, and he cried as her arms dropped to her sides, the ashes drifting farther and farther out. He hadn’t slept well in weeks—none of them had, really—but these days his exhaustion meant that everything was making him cry.
He thought about waiting for Louisa to return and offering her comfort, but it was such a tender moment, and he feared doing the wrong thing, even if he was Louisa’s oldest friend. So he took his cup of tea and returned to his room, which was the lone room on the left side of the hallway. He climbed into his creaky bed and tried to read The Golden Bowl, which someone had left there on an earlier escape. Louisa felt the ash and bone stick to her legs as the water swirled around her and she wanted to sob. She attempted to brush the damp ash off her calves, ultimately sinking low into the water to wash off the detritus of her dead mother, her favorite person, and when she had done her best she returned to shore.
Lucien cooked for everyone in the morning—he was the only one who knew, without needing to ask, how everyone liked their breakfast. (“The world may be constantly in flux,” he liked to joke, “but Inari Latvala will always like her eggs over medium.”) Today he wore charcoal slacks and a pink button-up under a gray cardigan, which made Louisa raise her eyebrows.
“You look nice,” she said.
“Oops,” he said, handing her a plate. “Accidentally broke your yolk. Sorry!”
“Jackass.” Louisa began to eat before the yolk could congeal, but she snuck a look at Inari, who rolled her eyes. “It’s like being color-blind,” she’d once said to Louisa. “You all see something in Lucien that I can’t.”
“You do look nice,” Mitsuki said. The wistfulness in his voice made Louisa’s teeth hurt. “What’s the occasion?”
Lucien laughed and took a bite off the end of a slice of bacon. “The end of the world, of course.” He handed a plate to Mitsuki.
“Oh, is that today?” Mitsuki rejoined, trying to sound equally jaunty. “I had no idea.”
But they all knew. They had all known for too long that the heavenly body, moniker Ludlow-1, would strike. There was nothing to be done about it. All of them had chosen to respond in different ways over the previous year, snorting drugs and weeping and trying to tie up their countless loose ends; in the end, however, they were all at the lake house, eating bacon and eggs.
A few moments later, Lucien handed a plate to Inari.
“Thank you,” Inari said.
“I’m going to eat outside,” Lucien said when he’d made his own plate. “It’s nice out.”
“I’ll come with you.” Mitsuki gathered his plate and utensils; Inari began to do the same, but Louisa gently rested her hand on Inari’s leg, and she stopped. The two men exited through the sliding-glass door. Louisa and Inari wandered to the living room, where several dirty wineglasses had already congregated. Inari reached for one of the half-empty bottles of rosé and poured it into an empty goblet.
“You’re lucky that you can’t see it,” Louisa said, shuddering, “that you can’t feel it. It’s horrible when he turns his attention on you and you’re just — stuck in it. Like a tractor beam.”
“And you were like that?” Inari lifted the goblet to her lips.
“At one time, sure. Back in college. Not anymore, of course. But at one time, I would’ve—I don’t know. Gutted myself for him.”
“Is he handsome, or is he a tall white man?” Inari intoned. She’d put on lipstick that morning. Her hair was white-blond, and it fell in waves to her pale shoulders. She was still wearing what she’d gone to bed in: a silk slip dress the color of champagne, stolen from one of the department stores that had shut down in the final months. No one in the group had really pinched much from the shops — what was the point — but there were things some of them had really wanted before the end, and now that they could have them, why not steal? For example, Louisa was slathering her face in La Mer these days. She would be ageless now, when agelessness meant nothing. Some things did mean something still: Inari, for example. Louisa’s homophobic mother had died, and then they had taken the leap.
“What do you think they’re doing out there,” Louisa said, gazing out the glass doors at tall, sturdy Lucien and timid Mitsuki, whose want was legible all over his face.
“Oh, you know.” Inari took a gulp, and then another. “Hurting. Getting hurt.”
“I see.” A pause. “Nappula… thank you,” Louisa said. When Inari didn’t respond, she continued: “Thank you for agreeing to do this. To make this trip with them at the end. I know it wasn’t — I know you would have preferred to go away, just the two of us. And it means so much to me that we did this. They’re my family.”
“I’m your family,” Inari said. Her gray nail polish seemed intentionally chipped as she wrapped her fingers around her glass, draining the goblet of its delicate pink wine. She refilled it before she brought it and the bottle with her to the bedroom, dragging the hem of her slip behind her.
Need to talk, said the text from Mitsuki, which is how Louisa found herself in Mitsuki’s room. Louisa had spent the previous hours trying to make it up to Inari, joking and working on the puzzle with her and rubbing her back. Now Kitty was on Mitsuki’s bed, watching them with half-open eyes as she rested her head on her paws.
“It’s Lucien,” Mitsuki said.
“It’s always Lucien, isn’t it?” Louisa asked carefully, but she watched her friend’s face, and he wouldn’t meet her gaze. He let his dark fringe fall over his left eye, giving him a rakish look that Louisa forever wondered, tenderly, why more people didn’t fall for. And now it was too late.
“Not like that,” he said impatiently. “He’s in love with Inari, has been for a long time. He wants to—to do something about it.”
“Inari?” She laughed. “My Inari? The elegant lesbian we all know and love?”
Mitsuki smiled. “Well, when you put it like that.”
“Yeah. You dimwit.” Louisa put her hand on his shoulder; he was wearing a thin blue sweater, an explosion of nubby pills across the front. “But thank you for telling me. You’re a good friend.”
His smile was now a bit mournful. “I suppose I assume everyone feels the way about him that I do.”
“Most people who like men do.”
“I wonder,” he said, “if I could’ve stood a chance. If we’d had more time.”
The answer was No, not really, Louisa thought, but instead she said, “We’ll never know.”
The shadow of a gull sliced noiselessly across the wall. They watched it as it collided with the darkness of the floorboards, and then Louisa said, “You know, Inari and I were going to try to have a baby until all this happened.”
He pulled up straighter. “Really? You never said anything.”
“Because it never went anywhere. We were saving for IVF. And in the end we only had a few thousand. That shit’s expensive,” she finished, trying to make her words light, to make her disappointment less heavy.
Mitsuki said, “You could’ve asked me. I would’ve loaned you the money.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Louisa replied, “but Inari would never have gone for it. She’s proud. Hell, I’m proud. Plus you’ve already done so much for me.”
“I would do anything for you.”
She took his hand in both of hers and they sat, watching the shadows on the wall. Out of the blue, he said, “You would make such a great mother.”
Eventually he fell asleep and she carefully tipped him backward so that he was lying in bed with his day clothes on. She stood back a few feet to watch him, and then she left.
Inari was on the floor, working on the puzzle, when Louisa came in and shut the door behind her. With alarm, Inari reached for her, seeing the look on her face, but Louisa didn’t want to be touched; she was too ashamed to be looked at, so she sat a few feet away and covered her face with her hands.
“Remember when I went to Provincetown after my mother died,” she said in a rush, “to visit Lucien at his fellowship?”
“Yes.” Lucien had gotten a spot at a coveted seven-month fellowship for his poetry the year before.
“I stayed with him in his living quarters. I’d done it before, of course: stayed with him in different places. He was fine, kind, Lucien. There was a party after two of the visual artists had an exhibit, and we both got drunk.”
Inari said nothing. Her hands opened and closed as she waited for the inevitable.
“I said I wanted to call you and go to bed. I was sleeping on the couch in the barn where he stayed. He said he wanted to go back too. We went upstairs and he closed the door behind us. He hugged me?” She said it like a question. “And he pressed against me, but he was… aroused. Then he tried to kiss me.”
“What did you do?” Inari asked.
“I pulled away. He grabbed me — hard — and tried again. He called me a — never mind. I think he was drunk. He ended up leaving bruises. I hit him and he stopped, he apologized. We both went to sleep.” Louisa uncovered her face. “Neither of us mentioned it afterward. I kept thinking, What if he doesn’t remember? What if he didn’t mean to do it? But then just now Mitsuki…”
“He said Lucien was interested in you, and it made me afraid. I had to say something.”
Instead of speaking, Inari moved the pink puzzle pieces around, finding none that fit. Louisa crawled forward and did the same.
“Is it possible,” Louisa said, “that it was an accident? That he mistook something I did?” And Inari knew that Louisa very badly wanted it to have been an accident. After all, she’d known Lucien for almost as long as she’d known Mitsuki.
“No,” said Inari. “It wasn’t.” She looked up at Louisa. “I wish you’d told me, Lou. I wish I wasn’t spending my last days on earth with that asshole.”
“We could leave,” Louisa said.
“You’d be willing to leave Mitsuki behind with him? No, you wouldn’t, because Mitsuki’s your oldest friend.” She sighed. “I don’t want to fight. And especially not over him.”
Louisa nodded, sniffling, snapping a corner into place.
Dinner was stew with wine, beef, and mushrooms; the most expensive champagne they’d been able to steal; cheeses; figs and walnuts; cheesecake, baked by Lucien, cooled in the fridge. The light was generous and poured into the dining room, but no one was in the mood to eat, and the food felt like something left over from Miss Havisham’s table, though everyone drank plenty, and the champagne filled their stomachs with sugar and bubbles.
“A toast to the end of the world,” Lucien said.
“To the end of the world,” Mitsuki echoed, and they clinked glasses.
Louisa and Inari nestled into a corner of a living room sofa, bringing a small cheese plate and a fresh bottle of Chardonnay with them. Slowly, tipping the bottle into their mouths, they became drunk, sinking into a haze as they kissed and groped, their Époisses-smeared fingers licked clean. Mitsuki suddenly bubbled out a sob and played Fiona Apple on the enormous speakers, her low croon making everything tremble; Lucien spooned stew out of the pot and directly into his mouth like a tall and handsome beast. He transitioned to straight whiskey, neat, in a tumbler he’d found on a high shelf. Inari watched him scornfully, her mouth taut as Louisa kissed her shoulder. She imagined him pressing against Louisa like he thought it was nothing, like he could take anything and it would be his.
The light dimmed and dimmed. Louisa was drunk. Inari crossed the room, leaving Louisa half dozing on the sofa. It was like a hazy dream when Inari actually did it — Louisa almost didn’t see. She would have missed it entirely if Lucien hadn’t screamed, high and thin like glass smashing, as Inari slid a steak knife from one of the well-made drawers and shoved it between Lucien’s ribs. There was hardly any blood at first, but then Lucien, panicking, made the mistake of yanking out the knife, which had stanched the flow, and it was too late.
“It doesn’t matter,” Inari kept repeating as Mitsuki wailed and crouched over the bleeding man, and Louisa jumped up, running to the three of them. Lucien, curled onto his side, lay still. Louisa wondered in horror at the red splashed in waves upon Inari’s clothing. They went back to their bedroom and stripped Inari of her stained silk dress, but she was bloody to the skin.
“Lock the door,” Inari said.
“It’s just Mitsuki out there,” Louisa breathed. She was fumbling through their suitcase, trying to find clothes; there were clothes, of course. Anything would do. But nothing, nothing would do.
Inari locked the door. The light heaved into the room, marking everything, insouciant. Inari’s hand left a wet print on the knob. She sat on the bed and watched Louisa throw the entire pile of clothing onto the floor. Louisa was crouching and crying with her face in her hands, and then she fell onto her ass. She blew her nose on a T-shirt. “God,” she said.
“I think God has abandoned us,” Inari said, and Louisa snorted, surprising them both. She cried and cried and thought of Lucien, whom she’d known since she was eighteen, whom she’d met as a college freshman at a party. He was too tall and unbearably handsome. They had talked about John Denver, their love of dogs. He had given her his number.
Louisa climbed onto the bed and Inari wrapped her long arms around her as the light outside grew larger and brighter like a blooming peony. The house shook, a door rattling on its hinges as Mitsuki tried to get in. Light slowly filled the window, a painting of forever, enveloping the room in white.
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