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They stopped at a metal gate flanked on both sides by a high wooden fence, a voice glitching over the intercom. Simon repeated his name twice before the gate swung open and they drove in on the pale gravel. Directly ahead, a semicircle of cars was parked in front of the main house. Alex could see a tennis court, a pool behind a smaller gate.

Alex kept her face blank and mild, though she felt a jolt at the obvious nearness of the sea. She poked her tongue along her top teeth, feeling for anything errant.

Simon cut the ignition. “Shall we?”

The door of the main house opened and a pug came trotting toward them. A man in a black polo and black pants followed, but the pug got there first, clamoring around Alex’s ankles.

“Welcome,” the man said. “This way.”

There were candles flickering inside the house in big hurricane vases. Even so, the entryway was too dark, disorienting after the sunshine. Alex turned to make sure Simon was behind her.

“Onward and upward,” Simon said, his voice echoing strangely, the pug’s nails clicking along the marble.

The big room that led to the patio seemed partially filled with mist, a dampness from the fog that had breached the windows. Beyond the patio was the spread of the ocean. The sun would set soon, the light already faltering.

The patio door was open. There, framed in the doorway, was Helen.

She was all in black, a sleeveless dress with a kind of cape hanging down the back. Her blond hair was pulled tight in a bun at her neck. How old was she? Alex couldn’t quite tell—her skin had been professionally blasted into the face of a bland 30-year-old. Her dark eyes wobbled until they finally focused on Simon and Alex.

“Simon,” Helen said, stepping toward him, opening her arms. “I wasn’t sure if you were coming.”

They kissed on both cheeks. Helen turned to Alex.

“And who,” she said, “is this?”

Alex made herself cheerful, a Girl Scout cheer. Who would be threatened by a Girl Scout? Deferential, scrubbed clean, this was the pose she had learned to take with older women. Still, Helen looked Alex up and down, lingering on each area of note. Alex watched her take in the information of the dress, the purse from Simon. Probably someone like Helen knew exactly what each item had cost.

“Thank you so much for having me,” Alex said. Better, always, not to compliment the house, not to indicate unfamiliarity with these places.

“Oh, sure,” Helen said, her attention falling away.

Helen had a touch of the daffy about her, but maybe it was just the effect of her cape streaming down her back, twisting in the breeze. Alex let Simon take her arm, let him lead her toward the tables set up on the terrace.

The guests were looking out on the ocean, or huddling under a fabric tent, full glasses held with both hands. Alex scanned the guests, always vigilant. But a quick glance around and no one looked familiar, no man staring at Alex with a worried question in his face.

Most of the women wore boxy shift dresses that showed off their slim legs. How many units of energy, how many hours of exercise did those legs require? Their wrists were weighted with gold bracelets, the same over-large scale as their earrings. The women had a funny, girlish air—their tiny steps and uncertain smiles, satin bows in their ponytails—though most of them were probably over 60, raised in a time when childishness was a lifetime female affect.

On the terrace, two gray-haired men in rubber waders and overalls had set up a raw bar and were expertly dispatching rocky oysters with sharp knives. Alex had seen these men before: They’d been at more than one party she and Simon had gone to in the last few weeks, tending to their bed of crushed ice, passing out the oysters in their little cups of brine. The host never failed to point out their grizzled presence, to remark how they had caught everything that day. Alex felt some camaraderie with the men—here, like she was, to perform.

Helen was staring at Alex’s dress. Helen asked if her dress was by a specific designer.

“No,” Alex said. It was.

Something was off in Alex’s tone, enough that Helen gave a little frown. Hopefully, Simon hadn’t noticed. Rein herself in—Alex forced a smile.

Alex made herself cheerful, a Girl Scout cheer. Who would be threatened by a Girl Scout? Deferential, scrubbed clean, this was the pose she had learned to take with older women

Alex thought that the man who brought them each a glass of wine was the same man who had let them in, but it was just someone dressed in the same black polo.

“Nice view,” Alex said—and it was. From where she and Simon were standing, the sand was invisible. There was only water, flat and silvered, appearing to stretch from the edge 
of the terrace to the hot pink line of the horizon. What would it be like to live here, to occupy this unfettered beauty every day? Could you become used to the shock of water? The envy acted like adrenaline in Alex’s body, a swift and enlivening rush to the head. It was better, sometimes, to never know certain things existed.

“Come look at the sunset,” Helen said, clutching Simon’s arm. Helen didn’t quite include Alex in the invitation but Alex followed anyway.

They stood at the edge of the terrace, at the top of the wooden steps that led to the water. The sand was tinted purple in the last of the light. Farther down the beach, a dog ran silently in and out of the line of waves.

Helen surveyed her stretch of beach. Something made her stiffen, let out an aggrieved exhale. “Well,” she said, “look at that. I hope they’re enjoying themselves.”

Alex followed Helen’s stare to a pair of beach chairs set up under a large umbrella. Alex could make out a couple sitting there, chatting. They were in jeans, one was in a plaid shirt—obviously not Helen’s guests, no one Helen knew.

“I should bring them a glass of lemonade,” Helen said. Her laugh startled Alex. “People must just feel so lucky, coming across these empty chairs. Just for them!”

Helen turned to search for help. When a staff member came over, she murmured instructions, her fingers waving in the direction of the beach chairs.

The three of them watched the uniformed man make his way across the sand. When he leaned down to talk to the couple, they burst out laughing, not at all chastened. The couple took their time getting to their feet. Exaggerating their exit. The uniformed man stood sentry, and when he was satisfied that the interlopers were continuing down the beach, the man began to dismantle the umbrella and efficiently fold the chairs.

The sun had set, the staff scrambling to adjust for the new darkness. They turned on the outdoor lamps and lit the citronella candles. Alex’s name had been scribbled on a place card, an obvious last-minute addition. Simon was sitting at another table. He waved at Alex with comic exaggeration. Alex blew him a kiss. An Austrian man was seated to Alex’s left. His forehead was smooth as an egg. His family ran a department store that had many locations across Austria, some department store that was a hundred years old. He came here every August.

“Nothing like it,” he said. “Our friends all come, too.”

“It’s beautiful here,” Alex said, dully.

“It is.” The man sighed. “So beautiful.”

Everyone said it was beautiful out here. How many times could this sentiment be repeated? It was the polite consensus to return to, the bookend to every conversation—a slogan that united everyone in their shared luck. And who could ever disagree? The place was so beautiful that people didn’t need to do anything. And no one did, judging by the table conversation. Nobody seemed to busy themselves beyond the expected ways: working on their backhand, cooking outdoors, going on a walk before the day got too hot.

The only other reliable conversation, besides the weather or the temperature fluctuations of the ocean, was the discussion of exactly what time people were planning to leave this beautiful place, how exactly they were planning to avoid traffic. From the moment they’d arrived, Alex had heard people invoking their departures, considering in detail the precise logistics of their exits.

By the time the first course appeared, the Austrian was telling the table about some terrible crime in Munich, something that happened earlier in the summer. A woman had killed five babies.

“Her own?” Helen said. She was flitting from table to table, dropping into conversations. She seemed to consider herself the host of a grand salon.

“Yes, I think so. And the other daughter, you see, she found the babies in a freezer.”


The Austrian nodded.

“The freezer must have been very big,” Helen said. “What brand?”

The Austrian didn’t know.

“Shocking,” Helen said, her voice getting louder, “isn’t it? We haven’t seen anything like this in nature. A mother killing her own children. That woman last week in Los Angeles, leaving her infant to go shoot people. It’s unprecedented. Science,” she said, “is confounded.”

Alex was barely listening—nature, science, morality. Sounded about right for these people on a Monday evening in August. She made a half-hearted attempt on the blended green soup in a shallow porcelain bowl in front of her.

Helen’s second husband was at the next table over—Simon had pointed him out before dinner. He was much younger than Helen, 35 or so, the youngest person here besides Alex. How would he and Helen even have met? Alex imagined one of these pseudo-foundations, a pseudo-board of which the man might have been an advisory member. His hair was long—he was smart to keep it that length, a style that emphasized his youth. In combination with the suit and his white shirt, loose at the throat, he was an appealing presence. Alex watched him talk to the woman on his right, grabbing her hand for inspection then holding up his own to compare—some joke, the woman obviously flattered by the attention.

A member of the staff hovered at Alex’s side to pour more water. When Alex leaned back to let the woman refill her glass, her face was suddenly near enough that they made accidental eye contact. Alex looked quickly at her plate, to be polite.

Midway through the black cod, a boy came loping down the steps from the house in big, youthful bounds. His hair was wet and dark, his sweatshirt zipped up, and he veered straight to Helen, bending down to kiss her cheek. He grabbed a piece of fish off her plate with his fingers.

“Jesus,” Helen said, swatting him, but beaming around the table. “My son,” she announced. “Theo.”

The boy smiled. His features were mushy and adolescent—Alex couldn’t guess whether he would end up being handsome. But he had the gift of seeming very polite even as he chewed with his mouth open.

“And what are we up to?” Helen said, pulsing the boy’s hand.

“Bonfire,” the boy said. “Just a few people. We’ll come back and say hi, don’t worry.”

Over the next course, Alex watched them trickle in, Theo’s friends: boys in swim trunks and sweatshirts, a girl in cutoffs that yawned up her ass crack. Another kid, clean, angelically blond, his track pants low on his hips. The teenagers huddled on the patio, drinking beer. They left their empty bottles for the servers to silently clear away.

Later, when Alex looked over, she saw the girl taking photos of the boys on her phone, all of them fluent in the language of posing. There was only a second where the glint of braces was apparent on the angelic blond boy’s bottom teeth—he’d learned how to hide them, Alex figured, smiling with his mouth closed.

When she turned back to the table, the Austrian was staring at her expectantly.

“Mmm,” Alex offered, a neutral enough stopgap, and this seemed perfectly acceptable. Amazing how little you had to give, really. People just wanted to hear their own voices, your response a comma punctuating their monologue.

Did Alex know, the Austrian said, that in certain island countries, women dressed in clothes that denoted their hierarchy, and every man could have multiple wives? Didn’t Alex think that level of clarity was beautiful, that ability to meet desires without shame?

“This,” the Austrian said, rapping his knuckles on the table, “is a very shame-based country.”

Didn’t she think so?

Alex nodded. She felt loopy, unable to exert her usual control. Alex made herself stop thinking. She searched out Simon at his table. When Simon waved at Alex, Alex kissed the air in his direction and smiled.

As the night wore on, Alex kept catching sight of Helen’s young husband with different older women, always touching them in some innocuous way, the drift of his fingertips coming to rest on a woman’s tanned, bony arm, or his hand lingering by the small of a woman’s back. He was good at it—and it was fun to watch him, to see whether he could keep this up. Where was Simon? On the other side of the terrace, talking to a sunburned block of a man: a retired general, his arms crossed and a sweater tied around his neck.

Alex’s unease was taking shape, a desire for the night to sharpen into action. The Austrian was regaling the table, now, with how wonderful Helen’s breakfasts were. He had started to list the foods that were available at her famous breakfasts, the grains and the juices. Alex only realized she was smiling when her cheeks started to ache. Helen was going on about some app she had invested in. The app, if Helen was to be believed, was perfecting a technology that diagnosed illness from a Breathalyzer you plugged into your phone. Helen said certain phrases with emphasis: SDKs. Daily granularity. Someone must have just taught her what these terms meant.

“Our art needs more technology and our technology needs more art,” Helen bleated, looking into the middle distance.

Alex drained her wine glass, then her water glass. The ocean looked calm, a black darker than the sky. A ripple of anxiety made her palms go damp. It seemed suddenly very tenuous to believe that anything would stay hidden, that she could successfully pass from one world to another.

The sight of Simon across the patio should have been more comforting. Alex excused herself and got to her feet.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, though no one was listening to her.

The staff was busy, in and out of the kitchen and the patio. The rest of the house was quiet. There were framed sketches all along the hallway, plans for something—probably the leftovers of someone important. People like Helen loved to display the artifacts of creativity as if that implicated her in the process.

Alex followed the hallway, opening a door on an empty room. Shelves lined the walls. A lamp cast a circle of light on a leather armchair. There was a white flower in a vase and a Duraflame in the immaculate fireplace. It was a non-room, dead and unused.

The things on the shelves were ugly—a poky brass paperweight, an ornate teak ball that smelled like amber. She paused to study a small piece of stone, carved to smoothness. It fit perfectly in Alex’s fist. It was matte black, marked by a few air holes, some striations of green and blue, and the weight was nice, heavier than expected. Maybe it was supposed to be an animal, a few little knobs that could be legs. She closed her fingers around it.

“Can I get you anything?” a voice asked.

It was a man in a black polo. Just one of the staff.

“I’m looking for the restroom.” Alex turned easily, dropping the stone into her bag. “If you could just point the way?”

There was no cabinet to look through, no pills to skim—it was a guest bathroom. A tube of lipstick on a high ledge—obviously Helen’s, stashed away for party touch-ups. Alex was about to take it, but the lipstick was a stubby burgundy. Not very flattering. A lit candle made jumping shadows on the baseboard. Alex’s forehead was shiny. Sweating, she was sweating. She pressed toilet paper to blot the shine. Nothing in her teeth. Tense, this feeling of urgency rising with nothing to come up against.

Alex sat on the lid of the toilet, slipping off her shoes and pressing her bare feet onto the chilly marble floor. She played absently with the little stone animal. Maybe it was valuable. Or maybe it was worthless.

It was inevitable, a few glasses in—she took out her phone and opened her messages.

Dom. She would finally respond.

She was drunk, yes, but she blamed the house, too—certain places made you feel that all problems had solutions. Like she could defuse this Dom thing. And why couldn’t she?

Alex would talk to Simon. Tonight. Lay out the situation in heavily redacted form. He’d be in a good mood, tipsy and generous. They’d have sex when they got home. But in her experience, men didn’t get more magnanimous after sex—they retreated into themselves, became closed off. So better to talk to Simon on the drive back. Her hand on his knee. She’d say Dom was an ex. Eke out a few tears, and she’d be drunk so they’d come easily, and even just imagining this future conversation, Alex’s eyes got watery—maybe she was more afraid of Dom than she’d realized.

How would she twist it into a palatable story?

She’d figure it out in the car. And Simon would know exactly what to do. Exactly how to fix the problem.

She typed out the text to Dom.

Srry i’ll call you tomorrow. Promise.

Everythings gonna be fine

A blue bar appeared, her text slowly winging its way to Dom’s phone, but it never loaded fully, a red alert popping up instead.

Not delivered.

No cell service.

No service in Helen’s hallway, either. Or in the big living room. One of the staff saw Alex tilting her phone back and forth.

“There’s better service on the beach.”

Alex walked down to the dark sand. Out of sight of the house, a bonfire was going on the shore, larger than she would have expected. A Jeep had been driven right onto the beach. Around the flicker of the bonfire, Alex saw the kids from earlier, Theo and the others. The group had tripled in size. Someone’s phone was playing music, amplified in an empty metal bowl. Girls sat shivering on boys’ laps, their bare shoulders cloaked by beach towels. The fire was going strong, the size almost frightening—but what could burn, here on the sand?

Alex kept walking, her phone held out in front of her. When a few bars jumped in and out of visibility, she squatted in the sand, trying to refresh her messages, but then the darkness nearby clicked into focus and there was a couple writhing on a towel. It took Alex a moment to recognize the boy from earlier, Theo’s blond, pretty friend, whose hand was down a girl’s unbuttoned cutoffs, working frantically. They didn’t notice Alex.

“God,” the girl said, her voice drunk and wet, “do whatever you want.”

Alex made a face.

Her phone dinged—the text had sent.

Almost instantly, three dots appeared. Dom was typing.

u say ur gonna call and u never do

I heard ur out east

How had Dom possibly figured out where she was? Alex cycled through the possibilities. Did one of her roommates know? Had Alex told someone? It didn’t make sense. She had the sick feeling that Dom would never let this drop. That she would never be able to get away from him, not really.

She typed out a message.

We can talk tomorrow.

His response was immediate.

Now. Call me.

She stared at the screen. Another message from Dom.


The phone started to ring, the screen flashing. She turned it off.

By the time Alex returned to the party, the dinner dishes had been cleared, the tables now cluttered with cheese plates and silver trays of dry-looking cookies.

Could everyone see how jittery Alex was?

But no one noticed her: They picked at the cheese, or stood bunched by the outdoor heaters. The party had gone a touch sloppy. Visible sweat stains, a few of the women’s ponytails losing steam. Simon and the retired general had been joined by the general’s wife, a sturdy woman with a dress that was too formal, the hemline grazing the floor. Simon caught Alex’s eyes and widened his own. Alex knew that meant Simon wanted her to join him. Normally, Alex would go instantly to Simon’s side, her obedience cheerful and frictionless. Tonight Alex smiled back at Simon but didn’t go over.

Simon’s expression flickered with displeasure.

Tense. Alex was tense. She didn’t want to see Simon when she was riled up like this, off her game. Making bad choices. Dom knew she was out here. This whole thing would be tricky. She’d talk to Simon later. On the drive home. No more stalling: She’d tell Simon everything, or a version of everything. They’d figure it out together.

While Alex had been gone, someone had refilled her wine. Alex flagged down a server and got a vodka tonic instead. Helen was petting her pug with clawed fingers, seemingly unaware of her husband across the terrace with yet another woman.

Alex was now drunk enough to drift into the husband’s orbit.

“Hi,” Alex said, raising her drink.

The woman he’d been talking with looked annoyed at Alex’s intrusion. “I’m going to get my sweater,” she said, ignoring Alex. “I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll be right here waiting,” Helen’s husband said. He had an accent but it seemed forced, something that required work. Alex still hadn’t seen him and Helen interact.

“You’re very patient,” Alex said, when the woman had gone. “Doing your public service.”

A look passed between them—and there it was, the barest shift of energy, of recognition. The husband’s face recalibrated, dropping one layer of falseness.

“I’m Alex,” she said. “You’re Helen’s husband, right?”

“Victor,” he said. “Do you know Helen?”

“My boyfriend does. Simon.” She took a sip of her drink. “Fun party.”

“It is.”

“Helen seems great,” Alex said, keeping her voice bland. “She’s an interesting lady,” Victor said. He was being careful. Alex could admire his dedication. What would it take to get Victor to crack, to break character?

“Have you guys been married long?”

“Five years.”

Alex raised her eyebrows but didn’t say anything. At least Simon was a real person. Easy to tell yourself he was pleasant, desirable. She couldn’t imagine someone choosing Helen. And this wasn’t temporary—Victor had fully committed, made a life out of this, or at the least, decided to call what he had a life.

“You’re out here all summer?”

“Sure, another few days or so,” Victor said. “Till Labor Day.”

“Us too. Simon’s having this party. This Labor Day party.”


Alex made a gesture at the water.

“Do you just wake up every morning and jump in the ocean? That’s what I’d do.”

“Sometimes,” Victor said. “Helen prefers the pool.”

Victor seemed amused by Alex, but wary. Alex tried to hold his gaze, not let it drop. She was unsure herself of what exactly she was doing. What the game was here.

“Can I see it?”

“The pool?” Victor shrugged. “I guess.”

Leaving the house, leaving the party behind—the air felt better, immediately, as if they’d been suddenly cut free. The path was lit by bulbs recessed into the ground that cast the foliage above into cutout shapes, like wallpaper. The gate to the pool stuck—Victor had to pull hard before it opened.

“After you.”

The pool was a clean hollow of light, and it was bigger than Simon’s, bounded by a brick patio. Alex could imagine how nice it would be to swim its length, a few easy pulls of water. Alex slipped off her shoes and grazed a foot in the pool. It was warmer than the air.

Victor stood behind her, hesitating, but when Alex sat down to put her legs in the water, Victor sat next to her.

“I almost drowned today,” Alex found herself saying. “In the ocean.”

“Oh, man.” His concern appeared real.

“I don’t know. I’m a pretty good swimmer. I think maybe it was a riptide.”

“Those things are scary,” he said. “No joke.”

The silence between them wasn’t uncomfortable.

Alex smoothed her dress. “Simon got this for me,” she said. “This dress.”

“It’s nice.”

Alex shrugged. “A little severe. Right? He likes everything a little severe.”

She pulled her phone from her bag. It was still turned off.

“Service isn’t great,” Victor said. “It’s the one thing about this place.”

“Is that how she keeps you locked in here? Your calls for help don’t go through?”

“Hey now,” Victor said. He smiled, but Alex could tell talking this way made him nervous.

“Sorry.” You couldn’t press too hard, Alex knew, couldn’t say certain things out loud.

“She’s great,” Victor said. “A great lady.”

Alex was too drunk. She could feel that she was grinning insanely. She tightened her grip on the phone and moved her feet in the water. “Too bad I don’t have a swimsuit,” Alex said. “The water’s perfect.”

“Oh, just go in.”

“I don’t really think it’s that kind of party.” Alex took another drink. “Or do you all jump in together after dessert, am I misreading the vibe?”

“She really isn’t so bad,” Victor said. “Helen.”

“I didn’t say that.”

It was dangerous, talking this way—the information out in the open, something they were naming.

“You go in first,” Alex said. “It’s your house, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes,” Victor said. “All this. As far as the eye can see.”

“Where did you live before?”

“London,” he said. “Then Brussels. Now here.” He held eye contact.

Alex had the idiot thought that somehow Victor would be able to help her. With this Dom thing. If she just explained the situation. Alex and Victor weren’t so different. He seemed like he might understand how easily things got complicated.

She smiled at him. The thrill was familiar. The giddy anxiety of watching yourself and waiting to see what you would do next.

“I’ll go in if you go in,” Alex said. A bad idea had its own relentless logic, a momentum that was queasy but also correct.

“What if someone pushed you?” he said. “What then?”

“You wouldn’t.”

A beat, a question in the air waiting to be answered.

Alex wasn’t sure he would do it until he actually did, Victor swooping toward her, wrapping Alex in a bear hug—they wobbled together for a brief second before he shifted his weight and they both hit the water. Alex came up laughing. Her drink had fallen in the pool, the lime wedge adrift, the glass sinking to the bottom in slow motion.

Her phone, she’d been holding her phone, and it was still in her hand, dripping wet.

“Fuck,” Alex said, but Victor was laughing, too, plucking at his sodden shirt. He drifted toward Alex in the water, his features wavery in the pool lights. They weren’t touching but they were close. Alex’s dress was heavy and floaty at the same time. They made eye contact, and he seemed to be feeling what she was feeling: that this was correct, the correct situation, both of them here in this pool. Alex kicked her legs to stay in place. Nothing had happened, not yet, but it was there between them.


The voice came from beyond the gate.

There, in the strange light, was Simon, his hands in his pockets. He watched them, unsmiling.

Ha ha, Alex thought. That man is my boyfriend, she thought. His daughter is not a good singer. I can’t go back to the city because I’ve done stupid things.

“Want to come on out of there, Alex?” Simon said.

Victor had stopped laughing, had stopped smiling, but Alex couldn’t make herself stop. She knew she was making it worse, laughing like this, but still, she floated for a second too long, waited a second too long before she slogged toward the steps, before she pulled herself out.

Adapted from The Guest by Emma Cline, to be published in May by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.

The Guest

$28.00, Bookshop

Originally Appeared on Vogue