The third place story in the 7th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, Rachel Pahl’s “Where We Go From Here,” engages with this year’s theme of customs by exploring the traditions we have that are informed by the deaths of those we hold dear, and the resulting decisions we make after said deaths. As our judge stated, “It’s interesting how so many of our traditions are handed down to us and we have the choice to either accept or reject them.” We hope you enjoy this third place story.
In June of 1998, Joan Burton – née Reedham – went for a swim in Lake George and never came back. Three weeks later, the annual Fourth of July party was held at the Reedham’s family home in Westerly, Rhode Island. The four remaining siblings and two stoic parents lined up outside to shake hands.
In January of 1999, patriarch Greg Reedham received a late-stage pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He passed away in early April, and his wife Cara soon after him in May. The Reedhams were once again in the paper, the second tragedy in twelve months. So sad, people said, to lose them all so close together. I feel for those kids.
Leigh Reedham, from a loft in downtown Los Angeles, took calls from well-meaning family friends and a whole host of lawyers all spring. One who happened to be her youngest sister, in fact. Becca called to ask how soon she could be in Providence. “There are some things you have to sign,” she told her, “as the oldest remaining child and heir. It would be good if you were in town to deal with the house as well.” So in July of 1999, Leigh got on a plane and flew across the country for the third time that year.
The house sits along a private beach in Watch Hill, right on Block Island Sound. A big white and blue house, remodeled twice this century, home to the Reedhams and their heirloom furniture. In two days, there will be a party, guests, and an overwhelming presence. Now, the house is still. Now, Leigh is here, staring up at it, squinting into the third-floor windows.
Leigh in her denim cutoffs and Nirvana shirt, dragging Toblerone up the long driveway by his leash. She says, “Toby, get up here.” There are other things she isn’t saying.
Leigh had signed the paperwork earlier that day. She had spent the car ride to the house on the phone going over the party checklist with Becca, whose flight had been delayed until the next morning. Becca had signed off with a reminder: “Please don’t let Toby get his hair all over everything.”
Now Leigh just has to wait for the twins. Teddy’s going to drive down from his Manhattan law firm and pick up Liz at the Providence train station on his way. While he drives, Leigh calls the caterer, the florist, and a pool cleaner. She spends at least a half hour swearing at a sheet set, trying her best to wrangle the guest rooms together. Her own, it can wait: dust and all, Kate Bush posters and all. Toby barks at the door at six fifteen.
The twins get out of the car at the same time, but Liz is the first to the open front door, a bag strung over her shoulder and the most sympathetic of smiles on her face. “Hey, hon,” she murmurs into Leigh’s shoulder when they hug, dwarfed – as always – by Leigh’s beanpole advantage.
“Missed you,” Leigh murmurs back, and she really does mean it.
“Is everything good to go for Friday?”
“All but the sparklers,” Teddy shouts from his car, where he’s pulling suitcase after suitcase from the backseat. Leigh glares at him.
“They scare Toby, and they’re illegal.”
“Okay, you two.” Liz takes her hand, gently pulling her into the house. Leigh’s unpacked boxes cover the entryway, helplessly scattered. “Jeez Louise, did you just get here?”
“Define just.” Leigh lifts a box labeled CDs before realizing she’s too tired to get it up the stairs. She sets it on the bottom step instead. “These got dropped off yesterday, but I only got here this afternoon. Kind of a… weird time to move in.”
Liz clicks her tongue, navigating the maze of Leigh’s earthly possessions with grace. “I can’t believe you didn’t make it out here earlier. It’s so close to the party.”
Leigh follows, making way for Teddy as he lugs bags into the entryway. “Well, yeah. But I had to finish up with work and everything. I’m… let’s just say I’m lucky Vagrant is setting up an East Coast office.” Toby has spread himself out on a couch that is at least twenty years old and upholstered with green flowers. Leigh makes a mental note to wipe it down at some point. “I fixed the guest rooms up. I think.”
“Did you call Judy? You know she’s always willing to help.”
Leigh falls into an armchair, swinging her legs over the side. “Actually, no. Hence the ‘I think.”
“If you made the beds, we’re all screwed.” Teddy makes his grand entrance, dropping suitcases in the foyer with a heavy thud and entering the sunroom, arms laden with garment bags that he lays out ever-so-carefully on the longest of the three couches in the room. “Leigh, did you call the DJ?”
Leigh’s eyes dart to the phone on the wall by the kitchen. “I… definitely did that. Not.”
Teddy smiles at her – of course – and turns to the phone. Liz sits down next to Toby, scratching him behind the ears. “You’ve had a lot on your mind, hon. It’s okay to lose track of one thing.”
“Stop reading my mind.” The pillow Leigh throws over her face muffles her groan.
Since Leigh first talked to the lawyers in May, she’s been saying one thing to everyone she knows: she isn’t supposed to be here. It was always going to be Joan first. Joan would have the requisite two and a half beautiful babies and move out to the house once her husband got tired of his high-speed New York life. They’d settle down, host the parties and raise a family and Mom and Dad would die happy, legacy secured. It wasn’t ever going to be Leigh, who lived in Los Angeles, Leigh who worked for a record company, Leigh who hated coming home, fielding questions about the Rhode Island Reedhams until the end of time. She was never supposed to be here. It should have been anybody else before Leigh, no matter what order their birth certificates came in.
But Joan waded into Lake George and Leigh was the next oldest. Somehow, after all of it, the one in charge.
“I hate these Fourth of July parties,” Leigh announces to the cloth of the pillow. Liz clicks her tongue, to either agree or admonish.
“You’ll hate them more when you see the dress Becs ordered you. I’m pretty sure it’s salmon and strapless,” says Teddy from the kitchen. “Music is a go, by the way. You’re welcome.”
“Thank God for you.” Leigh sits up. Toby lays in front of her, his head cradled in her folded ankles. She pats his head. “Good boy.” The only one who’s likely to listen to her all weekend.
Becca’s flight gets in at six the next morning. She drives herself to the house, calling Judy, the housekeeper, when the sun is at an appropriate place in the sky. With Becca will come a whirlwind to sweep Leigh under its feet. Now it’s July third; her impending doom is less and less easy to avoid. She spends the early morning in her room, running her fingers over old records and the Polaroids and sticky notes she had pinned to her walls in high school. There’s a Leigh somewhere in there and a Leigh somewhere in her, and the longer she stays home the more the two start to blur together – into someone she recognizes well, has almost missed.
Becca and Judy’s arrival is announced via Liz and Toby’s loud squealing in the entryway. As Teddy and Leigh descend the stairs, Judy stands with her hands on her hips, surveying the four of them.
“The Reedham children, together again.” Just like Leigh, there are things Judy isn’t saying. She has brought her grandchildren; Liz offers to take them down to the beach so they stay out of the way. Becca drops her two bags on the tile and immediately picks up the phonebook, paging through for something Leigh has… probably forgotten. “I’ve missed seeing your faces.”
“I’ve been around, Mrs. Lord,” Teddy protests. Judy chuckles and hugs him. When it’s Leigh’s turn, she savors Judy’s sugar cookie-scented embrace.
“You’ll be seeing more of me, probably.” Leigh tries to keep sheepishness out of her voice.
“I bet I will.” Judy clasps the side of Leigh’s face. “I’ll stop by on Sunday mornings. Ah, don’t argue-” Leigh shuts her mouth – “I’ll be bringing muffins, as well. We can gossip, like the old days.” Leigh agrees, chuckles awkwardly. It’s all she can do not to crawl out of her own skin because –
Her life has become muffins in the mornings with Judy again, discussing the latest celebrity rags and asking after Judy’s grandchildren, all older and cooler than Leigh ever managed to be. It’s a stark reversal of the last fifteen years of Leigh’s life, and suddenly it’s not like she’s growing up – it’s like she’s growing down.
They spend Thursday opening boxes, calling and arranging and cleaning. Judy helps with the preparation of the guest rooms, which Leigh would ruin were she to go near them. There are, at highest count, twelve guests staying overnight. Because moving in isn’t stressful enough on its own, Leigh muses, but sits down with Judy to plan an elaborate breakfast spread anyway.
Becca stays up late, editing menus and finishing checklists and going over the dining room with a duster one last time before heading upstairs. This is how she gets her energy out: in small, productive bursts. There’s a lot built up behind her temples, causing constant headaches, and there has been for a few months at least. Dealing with the will in Providence, because Teddy was too busy with the Sullivan case and Becca was the only other Reedham lawyer – the last resort. Then calling Leigh, bugging her enough to get her to say the party was still going on, yes, it’s tradition. Then it was preparation from states away, on top of her own work, clients, a cheating boyfriend, and midnight runs past the cemetery that her parents weren’t in. Becca doesn’t know if it would make her feel better, or worse, having them so close every day. She pictures herself wincing away from disapproval and decides, definitely, better.
Liz and Teddy are both asleep, but Leigh is a night owl and running on LA time. She’s on the flat roof outside of the attic when Becca finds her there with Toby, scratching his head and doing her very best not to stop breathing altogether.
“Are you panicking? You shouldn’t do that; everything’s under control.” Becca toes at the dusty surface of the roof. Leigh’s feet dangle over the edge as she hovers on the precipice, swaying slightly in the breeze. Becca’s lungs feel hollow in the cold night air.
“The last Reedham Fourth of July party of the century. What’s to panic about?” Leigh drawls. Becca chuckles.
“It’s not that big a deal. We don’t even have to do it next year if you don’t want to.” Finally, she sits, stretching her legs over the edge of the roof. Leigh scoots over to make room for her. “Well, we should.”
“Yup.” Leigh sighs. “Pretty sure it was in Mom and Dad’s will.”
Becca chuckles. “It wasn’t, but it should have been. Just to… torture you.” Leigh scoffs, and silence settles, the crashing of the waves against rock making a soundtrack. Lights have been strung up on the makeshift platform out on the beach, where the DJ will set up tomorrow night. To Leigh, this has always been the eeriest part. The night before the guests arrive, when the whole house is holding its breath.
“Tell me the truth,” she says to Becca, who hums in acknowledgement. “Do you think Joan would have done better than me?”
Becca sighs. It takes her a moment to answer.
“No. I think you would have done the same. You both would have struggled, for different reasons.” Becca glances over. She sees Leigh rub the fur on the back of Toby’s head, one of her many defense mechanisms. “Joan would have cracked under the pressure and melted down. Left it for the rest of us to handle, probably. You’re just… worried that you won’t do it right. So you’re telling us to do everything but the stuff you know you’ll get absolutely perfect.”
“There’s not a lot I do perfectly,” Leigh mutters.
“There’s plenty you do. Just not… party planning.”
“True.” Somewhere, a bird makes a noise, and it startles Becca badly enough to get her standing. “Are you going in?” Leigh asks.
“I want to be refreshed for tomorrow. You know, don’t want to be tired. You should think about going to sleep.” Leigh nods and offers a halfhearted goodbye as Becca opens the creaky door. She stares down the drop to the lawn below, the roof sloping out of the way. She wonders what Joan felt like when she was sinking, but she doesn’t want to think about that for very long.
The guests start to arrive just before three in the afternoon. Becca flits around the foyer, greeting people, adjusting flower arrangements and dishes of food. Leigh lingers by the staircase, in the kitchen, anywhere that’s out of the way. She steals hors d’oeuvres from platters and tries hard not to spill anything on the salmon sundress she’s wearing. Her parents may be dead and buried, but the Fourth of July party is still the social event of the season. See and be seen by the decade’s best and brightest, and by all of their conceivable contacts. And that’s not even mentioning the Reedham kids – two influential lawyers, an all-around perfect pediatrician, and a Providence trust fund’s best shot at a recording deal. Get some decent food out of it, too. What’s not to anticipate?
The afternoon is for the family friends, the cousins, the partners at the law firm. They bring their kids, who play on the beach and splash around in the pool. It’s informal, as informal as it gets around here, and Leigh can hide upstairs with her record collection and a cigarette if she wants to. She used to, at least.
True hostess duties will kick in around six, as afternoon wanes. The fireworks in the sound start at nine. Three hours of socializing. Fielding remarks from people who knew the parents, people who came to the parties, people none of the Reedham kids have seen in months.
My condolences. I was so sorry to hear about your parents. And so soon after Joan, as well. It’s good to see all of you together. Glad to see the party is still on.
As the high-profile guests file in, Ralph Lauren-casual, Leigh lines up next to Liz and Teddy in front of the staircase. Becca joins them as well, forming the same kind of line that they had at the funeral – both of them. Becca, short but with the best posture in snappy heels and a nice blouse. Leigh in her sundress and teased Los Angeles highlights, arms crossed lightly across her chest. Liz in a lightly colored pantsuit, nursing a glass of champagne slowly. Teddy with his arms down by his sides, subtly flexed, wearing sandals that look worn but cost at least three hundred dollars. Like the sun at the center of the solar system, tonight’s particular world revolves around them.
When people get to Becca, they move on quickly. She didn’t expect anything else. The summer after her research trip in Europe, it was only the German investment banker from Boston who asked to see pictures. The years she spent working on a study correlating poor mental health and criminal indictment were met with a casual dismissiveness. When she applied to law school, everyone seemed to settle, now that she was finally following the plan. This year, one or two people remark on her graduation from Yale Law, mostly alumni. We talked about this last year, she thinks. She thanks them anyway.
“Congratulations on the promotion,” they say to Teddy. Teddy, the only one of them left who did exactly what he was told when he was told to do it. He grasps outstretched hands firmly, shakes them between his palms. He thanks everyone with a genuine sincerity. Half of these men talked stocks with his father at this party only last year while Teddy looked on. He doesn’t mind the attention, not at all. He feels comfortable in this crowd.
The reason he grabs another beer from the fridge: not everything is perfect. Joan’s room upstairs is dusty and empty, a tangible reminder of her loss even two years later. His wife Maria is home in New York, with her feet up and her mind on HGTV, because a no-stress weekend was exactly what Teddy promised, with the baby only a few weeks away. On the drive down, he had found himself torn. He wouldn’t have minded nights cuddling on the couch, making dinner for three, reading the whole paper in the mornings. But he doesn’t mind being here, either.
Even Liz couldn’t talk him out of his weird mood on the drive to the house. “You’ll be getting to talk shop,” she had said, and Teddy just shrugged.
“I’ve got a kid coming. I just feel like… that’s where my head is, all the time these days. You know that feeling?”
“I will.” Liz leaned her head on the window. “Probably more than you, since I’ll be the one carrying it.”
Teddy chuckled: fair point. “Keith still wants to wait until you’re married?” Liz sighed.
“He does. It’s just a… I mean, I agree. I’m looking forward to it, though.”
Teddy has always wondered at the parts of them that are in sync. They’re twins – not identical, but twins – and that seems to be the first thing anyone has talked about for most of their lives. At school – you two should dress the same. At college – I bet she can hear your thoughts. At work – is your sister a lawyer, too? For the record, Teddy has never felt all that twin nonsense the way people assume. He loves his sister, is maybe closest to Liz than anyone else, but – they aren’t the same.
And Liz would agree. When Teddy ducks into the kitchen for a second beer, she’s standing at the counter pouring herself a new glass of champagne and eating the chocolate shell off of a strawberry. “Hi,” she says to him around a mouthful. He taps her on the chin.
“No chewing with your mouth open.” She tickles him under the shoulder blade. Like children, they can be, even at thirty.
“I’m gonna have to leave early tomorrow morning. There’s a staffing issue at the hospital.”
Teddy grabs an olive from the plate on the counter in front of him. “Okay,” he says after swallowing – he’s the one with the proper manners. “Just let Mrs. Lord know? Or Leigh. I’m honestly not sure who’s in charge anymore.”
“I think Leigh.” Liz sighs and leans back against the counter. “Does she seem… all right to you? In terms of everything. I know she never wanted the house, and to be thrown into it right now, with the holiday and everything…”
“Yes, but Leigh is…” Teddy searches for a word. “Leigh. She’s fine, I mean. Give her a Red Bull and Toblerone and she’s doing great.” He pauses. “I meant the dog, not the candy.”
They trail off into silence. “Why did she name that dog after candy?” Teddy wonders aloud, just as Leigh enters the kitchen, her feet dragging. She has an empty punch glass in her hand and her hair is thrown to one side, like she’s been tugging at it.
She sets her glass down on the counter maybe harder than she meant to. “Because Ferrero Rocher was too pretentious, and Toblerone is the better candy, anyway.” She slopes over the island counter, stretching her arms out and pressing her forehead to the cool marble. “Liz?”
“Next year… I’m going to get the flu or something at the end of June. And it’s going to be incredibly serious, super contagious; I’m probably going to need to be quarantined for a week or more. Just… letting you know.”
Teddy chuckles; honestly, he gets how she feels. Liz may be his twin, but Teddy has more in common with Leigh than any of the others. He bumps her shoulder and heads out of the kitchen, leaving Liz to care for the oldest of them.
“You know,” she says, drifting over to Leigh’s sprawled out form, “you’re in charge now. If you wanted all of this to stop, the parties and the socializing and everything, you could do that.”
“Can’t,” Leigh says into the counter, muffled. “Not what Mom and Dad wanted.”
“Mom and Dad, bless them, aren’t here.”
Leigh stands up, stretching her shoulders and cracking her back. Her head falls back, staring up into the ceiling. Past the ornate kitchen lights is the master suite of the house, now empty. Someday, Leigh will remodel that. Maybe for herself and somebody else, if she ever brings anyone home for good. Someday she’ll get the courage to make this a home that she owns, not just in deed but in feeling like she belongs here.
“They are though, aren’t they.” Leigh sighs, looking out to the beach. “Okay, they’re playing Ricky Martin. I am… putting a stop to this.” Tired-drunk, she trods off to the stage, where a handful of adults are grooving to Livin’ La Vida Loca. Liz laughs into her glass.
With the onset of twilight, most of the party has migrated outside. Liz wanders aimlessly from conversation to conversation, getting pulled in more often than not. Leigh’s Los Angeles grimace and tough-meat stubbornness cut through crowds much easier than Liz’s sugar-soft demeanor. She gets pulled into debates about everything from salmon preparation to the proper treatment for ear infections.
She doesn’t mind talking to people. In fact, she enjoys it. It’s always been her favorite part of parties. She likes learning about people, hearing their stories, exchanging bits and pieces of herself in return. One of her favorite things about doing her job has always been the candid conversations with the kids she treats – Where do you go to school? Do you play any sports? I have a cousin who likes that video game, too.
Every conversation tonight has started the same way. Something about Mom, Dad, or Joan. So hard to hear about the accident, they say. They don’t call it what it was. In polite society, you just don’t. “Your parents were extraordinary people,” says Georgia Hardin, who doesn’t mention Joan at all. She heads the Diocese’s international relief program. Liz has known Mrs. Hardin her whole life, and has rarely seen her frown the way she did at Joan’s funeral.
“I suppose they were,” Liz tells her, accepting the brief hug she offers.
“I know,” Mrs. Hardin says softly, “that your father was completely caught off guard when he got the news. Sudden, wasn’t it? But you all have shouldered it so well.”
“I suppose we have.” Over Mrs. Hardin’s shoulder, Liz sees Leigh leaning appraisingly over the DJ’s record collection. Teddy is standing by the bonfire, talking with their father’s old friends. Heaviness creases his brow. Becca is absolutely nowhere to be found. “I suppose… as well as we could.” Liz forces a smile to her face. “We have big shoes to fill.”
Mrs. Hardin clicks her tongue quietly, laying a hand on Liz’s shoulder. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.”
The little kids, who have been swarming the beach and the yard since the party began, have started to gather in subdued clusters along the water line, excited murmuring taking over. “Excuse me,” Liz clears her throat and smiles kindly at Mrs. Hardin. “I should find my siblings. Thank you so much for coming.”
It takes Liz a moment. It’s only once she looks up, catching a glimpse of Becca’s knee and Leigh’s sandal hanging off the attic roof, that she has a clue where they are. She pushes back through the crowds and heads inside.
The attic is at the top of a narrow staircase off the third floor, past all of the bedrooms. The door to Liz’s old room is cracked open, and she can see an overflowing bookshelf and an old tree by the window. She’s always thought of it like a museum up here. A memorial to the kids they used to be and the adults they were going to be once upon a time, before actual adulthood took over. They all had dreams. Teddy, she recalls, wanted to be a marine biologist because he liked turtles a lot. Then he found out he would have to study dead turtles, which was less appealing. And besides that – Teddy was the son, and Dad wanted a protégé, of sorts. A house like this comes with roles. Liz Reedham, doctor almost written in permanent marker on her bedroom door.
Liz pushes through the door of the attic and finds the others on the edge of the roof. Teddy is leaning against the shingles, one foot kicked out, and he raises his eyebrows when he sees her. “Finally,” he jokes.
“Sorry, my sibling sixth sense was off.” Liz rolls her eyes. “What are we all doing out here?”
“Leigh ran away.” Becca playfully nudges her sister’s shoulder. She sees Leigh flinch, rubbing precise circles in between Toby’s ears. He sits in her lap, grumbling contentedly.
“Yeah, before I forcibly removed Ike the DJ from the premises.” Leigh glances back at Liz. “You wanna just watch the fireworks up here?”
“Well, I climbed all this way.” Liz settles down next to Becca, pushing Teddy out of the way until he’s forced to slide down and join her. Four pairs of feet, dangling over the edge. They don’t leave a gap for Joan – last year, her spot among them was obvious, but some scars are starting to heal over. It’s time, maybe, to fill in the empty around them with something else.
“Still feels weird,” Becca admits with a sigh. The sky darkens, and despite the noise below them, the world they occupy feels wholly singular. “Like- now, we’re adults. Like we’ve been kids the whole rest of the time, but now… it’s just us.”
“I know what you mean.” Teddy reaches around Liz to shake Becca’s shoulder gently. “It feels like a fresh start, in a way.”
“I feel like I’m going crazy,” Becca says quietly. “I don’t feel like I know how to do the rest of it.”
“Neither do I,” Liz admits. “But then again, I don’t think any of them do, either.” She gestures down to the party below them.
“You’re probably right.” Leigh snorts. “You’re so right. Almost makes me feel better.”
“What’s your plan, anyway?” Teddy’s words are nearly lost in the crash of the first few fireworks.
Leigh takes a deep breath. “Okay. Well, I’m keeping the house. I… kind of want to remodel a little, though. Maybe add a recording studio in the basement.” She smiles indulgently. “I guess I’ll recover from this July and… get ready for Christmas? And then do it all again next year.” And keep doing it, as time plods inexorably forward. Leigh won’t say it aloud – she doesn’t need to, with the three of them – but she doesn’t think there’s much of a choice.
It’s better to find the good parts, the best parts, than to resign and let the waves crash over you, washing everything that you once held onto away.
“I’ll help you,” Becca smiles. “With the remodeling. I think I need to get out of Chicago for a little while.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll even make up the guest rooms.” Becca makes a gagging sound, and Leigh laughs so hard that Toby startles in her lap.
The fireworks crash overhead, in reds and blues and whites. The four Reedhams – focused on moving ahead despite – sit on the roof of a house in Westerly, Rhode Island and breathe, for just one moment. They take the one moment that they can.
As the fireworks fizzle to a close at the 33rd annual Reedham family Fourth of July party, and the dust of two years clears away from the present, Liz clears her throat and stands up. “Right. Anybody want ice cream?”
Four hands go up in unison.