The Last House Guest
There was a storm offshore at dusk. I could see it coming in the shelf of darker clouds looming near the horizon. Feel it in the wind blowing in from the north, colder than the evening air. I hadn’t heard anything in the forecast, but that meant nothing for a summer night in Littleport.
I stepped back from the bluffs, imagined Sadie standing here instead, as I often did. Her blue dress trailing behind her in the wind, her blond hair blowing across her face, her eyes drifting shut. Her toes curled on the edge, a slow shift in weight. The moment—the fulcrum on which her life balanced.
I often imagined the last thing she was writing to me, standing on the edge: There are things even you don’t know.
I can’t do this anymore.
But in the end, the silence was perfectly, tragically Sadie Loman, leaving everyone wanting more.
THE LOMANS’ SPRAWLING ESTATE
had once felt like home, warm and comforting—the stone base, the blue-gray clapboard siding, doors and glass panes trimmed in white, and every window lit up on summer nights, like the house was alive. Reduced now to a dark and hollow shell.
In the winter, it had been easier to pretend: handling the maintenance of the properties around town, coordinating the future bookings, overseeing the new construction. I was accustomed to the stillness of the off-season, the lingering quiet. But the summer bustle, the visitors, the way I was always on call, smile in place, voice accommodating—the house was a stark contrast. An absence you could feel; ghosts in the corner of your vision.
Now each evening I’d walk by on my way to the guest cottage and catch sight of something that made me look twice—a blur of movement. Thinking for an awful, beautiful moment: Sadie. But the only thing I ever saw in the darkened windows was my distorted reflection watching back. My own personal haunting.
IN THE DAYS AFTER Sadie’s death, I remained on the outskirts, coming only when summoned, speaking only when called upon. Everything mattered, and nothing did.
I gave my stilted statement about that night to the two men who knocked on my door the next morning. The detective in charge was the same man who’d found me on the cliffs the night before. His name was Detective Collins, and every pointed question came from him. He wanted to know when I’d last seen Sadie (here in the guesthouse, around noon), whether she’d told me her plans for that night (she hadn’t), how she’d been acting that day (like Sadie).
But my answers lagged unnaturally behind, as if some connection had been severed. I could hear myself from a remove as the interview was happening.
You, Luciana, and Parker each arrived at the party separately. How did that go again?
I was there first. Luciana arrived next. Parker arrived last.
Here, a pause. And Connor Harlow? We heard he was at the party.
A nod. A gap. Connor was there, too.
I told them about the message, showed them my phone, promised she’d been writing to me when all of us were already at the party together. How many drinks had you had by then? Detective Collins had asked. And I’d said two, meaning three.
He tore a sheet of lined paper off his notepad, wrote out a list of our names, asked me to fill in the arrival times as well as I could. I estimated Luce’s arrival based on the time I’d called Sadie and Parker’s on the time I’d sent the text, asking where she was.
Avery Greer—6:40 p.m.
Luciana Suarez—8 p.m.
Parker Loman—8:30 p.m.
I hadn’t seen Connor come in, and I’d frowned at the page. Connor got there before Parker. I’m not sure when, I’d said.
Detective Collins had twisted the paper back his way, eyes skimming the list. That’s a big gap between you and the next person.
I told him I was setting up. Told him the first-timers always came early.
The investigation that followed was tight and to the point, which the Lomans must’ve appreciated, all things considered. The house had remained dark, since Grant and Bianca were called back in the middle of the night with word of Sadie’s death. When the cleaning company and the pool van showed up before Memorial Day—dusting out the cobwebs, shining the counters, opening up
the pool—I’d watched from behind the curtains of the guesthouse, thinking maybe the Lomans would be back. They were not ones to linger in sentimentality or uncertainty. They were the type who favored commitment and facts, regardless of which way they bent.
So, the facts, then: There were no signs of foul play. No drugs or alcohol in her system. No inconsistencies in the interviews. It seemed no one had motive to hurt Sadie Loman, nor opportunity. Anyone who had a relationship with her was accounted for at the Plus-One party.
It was hard to simultaneously grieve and reconstruct your own alibi. It was tempting to accuse someone else just to give yourself some space. It would have been so easy. But none of us had done it, and I thought that was a testament to Sadie herself. That none of us could imagine wanting her dead.
The official cause of death was drowning, but there would have been no surviving the fall—the rocks and the current, the force and the cold.
She could’ve slipped, I told the detectives. This, I had wanted so badly to believe. That there wasn’t something I had missed. Some sign that I could trace back, some moment when I could’ve intervened. But it was the shoes at first that made them think otherwise. A deliberate move. The gold sandals left behind. Like she’d stopped to unstrap them on her way to the edge. A moment of pause before she continued on.
I fought it even as her family accepted it. Sadie was my anchor, my coconspirator, the force that had grounded my life for so many years. If I imagined her jumping, then everything tilted precariously, just as it had that night.
But later that evening, after the interviews, they found the note inside the kitchen garbage can. Possibly swept up in the mess of an emptied pantry, everything laid out on the counters—the result of Luce trying to clean, to bring some order, before Grant and Bianca
arrived in the middle of the night. But knowing Sadie, more likely a draft that she had decided against; a commitment to the fact that no words would do.
I hadn’t seen the warnings. The cause and effect that had brought Sadie to this moment. But I knew how fast a spiral could grab you, how far the surface could seem from below.
I knew exactly what Littleport could do.
I WAS ALONE UP here now.
Still living and working out of the guesthouse.
The inside of the one-bedroom apartment was decorated like a dollhouse version of the main residence, with the same wainscoting and dark wood floors. But the walls were tighter, the ceilings lower, the windows thin enough that you could hear the wind rattle the edges at night. The ocean view was partially obstructed through the trees.
I sat at the desk in the living room, finishing up the last of the paperwork before bed. There had been damage at one of the rentals earlier in the week—a broken flat-screen television, the surface fractured, the whole thing hanging crookedly from the wall; and one shattered ceramic vase below the television. The renters swore it hadn’t been them, claiming an intruder while they were out, though nothing was taken, and there was no sign of forced entry.
I’d driven straight over after they called in a panic. Surveyed the scene as they pointed out the damage with trembling hands. A narrow weatherworn house we called Trail’s End located on the fringes of downtown, its faded siding and overgrown path to the coastline only adding to its charm. Now the renters pointed to the unlit path and the distance from the neighbors as a lapse in security, the potential for danger.
They promised they had locked up before leaving for the day.
They were sure, implying that the fault lay on my end somehow. The way they kept mentioning this fact—We locked the doors, we always do—was enough to keep me from believing them. Or wonder whether they were trying to cover up for something more sinister: an argument, someone throwing the vase, end over end, until it connected with the television.
Well, damage done, either way. It wasn’t enough for the company to pursue, especially from a family who’d been coming for the entire month of August the last three years, despite what might be happening within those walls.
I stretched out on the couch, reaching for the remote before heading to my bedroom. I’d gotten into the habit of falling asleep with the television on. The low hum of voices in the next room, beneath the sound of the gently rattling window frame.
I’ve known enough of loss to accept that grief may lose its sharpness with time, but memory only tightens. Moments replay.
In the silence, all I could hear was Sadie’s voice, calling my name as she walked inside. The last time I saw her.
Sometimes, in my memory, she lingers there, in the entrance of my room, like she’s waiting for me to notice something.
I WOKE TO SILENCE.
It was still dark, but the noise from the television was gone. Nothing but the window rattling as a strong gust blew in from somewhere offshore. I flipped the switch on the bedside table lamp, but nothing happened. The electricity was out again.
It’d been happening more often, always at night, always when I’d have to find a flashlight to reset the fuse in the box beside the garage. It was a concession for living in a town like this. Exclusive, yes. But too far from the city and too susceptible to the surroundings. The infrastructure out on the coast hadn’t caught up to the
demand, money or not. Most places had backup generators for the winter, just in case; a good storm could knock us off the grid for a week or more. Summer blackouts were the other extreme—too many people, the population tripled in size. Everything stretched too thin. Grid overload.
But as far as I could tell, this was localized—just me. Something an electrician should take a look at, probably.
The sound of the wind outside almost made me decide to wait it out until morning, except the charge on my cell was in the red, and I didn’t like the idea of being up here alone, with no power and no phone.
The night was colder than I’d expected as I raced down the path toward the garage, flashlight in hand. The metal door to the fuse box was cold to the touch and slightly ajar. There was a keyhole at the base, but I’d wedged it open myself earlier this month, the first time this happened.
I flipped the master switch and slammed the metal door closed again, making sure it latched this time.
Another gust of wind blew as I turned back, and the sound of a door slamming shut cut through the night, made me freeze. The noise had come from the main residence, on the other side of the garage.
I cycled through the possibilities: a pool chair caught in the wind, a piece of debris colliding with the side of the house. Or something I forgot to secure myself—the back doors left unlatched, maybe.
The lockbox for the spare key was hidden just under the stone overhang of the porch, and my fingers fumbled the code in the dark twice before the lid popped open.
Another gust of wind, another noise, closer this time—the hinges of a gate echoing through the night as I jogged up the steps of the front porch.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I slid the key into the lock—it was already unlocked. The door creaked open, and my hand brushed the wall just inside, connecting with the foyer switch, illuminating the empty space from the chandelier above.
It was then that I saw it. Through the foyer, down the hall at the back of the house. The shadow of a man standing before the glass patio doors, silhouetted in the moonlight.
“Oh,” I said, taking a step back just as he took a step closer.
I would know the shape of him anywhere. Parker Loman.