In today’s installment of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Miciah Bay Gault’s novel, Goodnight Stranger, out today from Park Row—and recently longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
Booklist called Goodnight Stranger “Quietly chilling…A suspenseful meditation on the many ways in which the past, consciously or not, shapes the present.” And George Saunders hailed the book as a “taut, keenly intelligent, and provocative debut…Deeply compelling and enjoyable, suffused with a genuinely thrilling new mode of literary energy.”
I left work early. I walked quickly as if chased. I wasn’t sure what I was running from, or to. All I knew was that I couldn’t go home. It hurt my chest in a complicated way to think that somewhere in the house I loved so much was the stranger. I felt a knot of fear inside my ribs, a tough bud threatening to blossom open. Instead of going home, I went to Island Pie and ate two slices with tomatoes and broccoli. It began to rain and I stood under an awning on the street. The drops started fat and distinct, making satisfying plunking sounds on the gutters, drumming on the leaves. Then more rain, and more, one long blur, a murmur. The nails holding shingles in place gleamed. The masts of boats flashed out in the harbor.
Eddie, a kind of blur through the rain, waved me over to One Eyed Jack’s.
“Get out of the rain!” he said. “I think I just heard thunder.”
“I guess I’ll have one drink,” I told him.
“Totally on me,” he said.
“You’re a real gentleman.”
“Where are the two musketeers?” he said.
“Home.” I felt the muscles of my jaw tighten as I said the word, imagining Cole and Lucas, eating dinner together in a circle of light at the kitchen table, maybe drinking wine out of mason jars. Home certainly didn’t feel like the haven it had always been for me; I was putting off returning to all that was waiting for me there.
Eliot Moniz brought me a scotch and soda. Beside me were the old fishermen. I couldn’t hear their conversation, just comforting cackles of laughter. Over near the back porch, Elijah West was having a beer with his dad and brother. At nine, a band called Gin and Soda started strumming guitars in the corner near the porch. Eddie helped plug in their amp and microphone. Gin was the name of the bass player, an angular girl with thick dark hair. She’d grown up on the Vineyard and she still lived there, but she had a sense of otherness about her somehow.
The whole place was full of people I knew, plus the heartiest of the lingering tourists, artists probably. I liked the late lingering tourists. They typically had a we’re-in-this-together attitude. At the table next to me, the tourists were yelling out the names of towns in New York. New Paltz! Ossining! Poughkeepsie! Redding!
I was lonely. I was envious of the people talking about New York towns. “Saratoga. Ticonderoga. Utica!” They all cheered. The band was playing weepy songs, drawing out the guitar.
Elijah West stopped to say hello on his way out. Elijah had grown up on Wolf Island, but after high school he’d stayed away for fifteen years. He’d become an art photographer. He’d published a book of photographs of bridges that half the islanders now had on their coffee tables.
“You’ve been busy lately,” I said. “I’ve seen you everywhere, snapping away.”
“You saw me, huh? I’m doing another book. On islands. The islands of the world, the charming, forgotten, undiscovered islands. The best islands.”
“Are we one of the best islands in the world?” I asked.
“I think so,” he said. “But I don’t know which ones my editor will pick.”
“What other islands have you done?”
“Remember when I went to Europe last year? There are a lot out there. One of my favorites is St. Michael’s Mount in England. It’s—”
“Oh, I know that one,” I said, “with the little causeway, at low tide.”
“And how it rises out of the, you know, stone. The castle. You’ve been there?”
“I’ve seen pictures.”
“An island is the best place on earth,” Sebastian, the old fisherman, said from nearby. I looked up at him, and he took off his hat. His hair was thick and wavy and white as the dawn.
“I agree,” I said.
“I’ve been all over this earth,” he said, “and no place feels like an island. It’s where you leave your heart. Every time.”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to capture in this book,” Elijah said.
I beamed at them both. They understood. I loved the island so much I wished I could find some means of expression for my love, but I couldn’t. I was envious of Elijah and his camera, trying to understand the island that way. If I’d been an artist, I would have painted it. If I could have eaten pieces of the island I would have, slabs of rock and sand. If I could have had sex with it, I would definitely have had sex with it. I felt a sudden conviction that the island was in danger, that Cole would do it harm, and it was up to me to protect it.
“I’ve always lived here,” I said.
“I know,” Elijah said. “Me, too.”
“No,” I said. “You left.”
“I came back,” Elijah said, offended. “Same as you.”
Elijah walked out, and I was alone again, listening to the music: sad, dreamy stuff. I felt displaced, floating, as if my vision and sense of direction were suddenly impaired. I thought, I don’t understand anything. Only what existed in that room. The sounds of the band. The sounds of bottles. The sounds of New York towns being spoken aloud like spells. The smell of salt, beer, and fried fish. The smell of damp wood. The dim light. The sense of companionship between me and Gin and Soda and the bartender and the tourists from New York and Sebastian and the other fishermen.
The scotch went straight to my hands, weighed them down, turned them heavy and tingly. I felt out of touch with them, with my whole real corporeal self.
“There are three types of people in this world,” I told Eliot Moniz when he brought me one more Glenmorangie. “The ones who are dangerous. The ones who love the ones who are dangerous. And the ones who protect the ones who love the ones who are dangerous.”
“True enough,” Eliot said.
I was a little drunk.
“But which one am I?” I asked.
“I guess that’s the question,” Eliot said.
Excerpted from Goodnight Stranger © 2019 by Miciah Bay Gault, used with permission by Park Row Books/HarperCollins.