The Trespasser

by Bonnie Jo Campbell

The mother jiggles her key in the ancient lock, nudges open the heavy oak door with her shoulder, and then freezes on the threshold. The father steps around her, enters the kitchen of the family cottage–last summer he and his daughter painted these walls sunshine yellow–and drops one of his two bags of groceries onto the linoleum. The thirteen-year-old daughter’s mouth glitters with braces. She squeezes her gym bag to her chest and says, “Holy crap.”

The stove is burned black, the ceiling tiles above it are scorched, and the adjacent side of the refrigerator is sooted. Bedsheets hang over the windows, one of which has been shattered, the broken glass removed. A faint ammonia smell lingers, and the kitchen garbage can is full of empty Sudafed packages and coffee filters and crumpled tinfoil.

A curly-haired blonde departs unseen through the back door, descends the stairs, and heads for the river. A few days ago, she was one of four intruders in the cottage cooking methamphetamine, but when the three men left last Sunday to go home and get a night’s rest before work, the girl hid away in a closet in the daughter’s room. The men had not realized that the skinny girl with the ravaged face was only sixteen, and they did not know that she had snagged enough meth during cooking to keep herself going, shooting up, for more than a week.

The family discovers that objects in every room of the cottage have been moved. On the kitchen counter, a configuration of condiment bottles–horseradish sauce balanced atop mustard, stacked atop mayonnaise, with two squeeze bottles of ketchup alongside–is encircled by pastel birthday candles arranged wick to end. Drawers are empty, their contents arranged as shrines on tables and dresser tops and in corners. In the bathroom, medicines and ointments and bottles of pills have been lined up on the sink. Tubes of lip balm cluster around an old glass bottle of Pepto-Bismol upon a green-and-white guest towel draped over the toilet tank. In the center of the master bed sits an ancient nest of twigs containing pale blue robins’ eggs (collected and blown by a great-grandmother), which forms a nativity scene with a pair of wooden dolls. A dozen old-fashioned clothespins are laid out side-by-side across the foot of the bed like children at a reunion lining up for the group photo.

Figurines and portraits long invisible to the family on the hallway bookshelf in their old juxtapositions have suddenly reappeared: the rocks painted to look like trolls mingle with the miniature bronze pigs, goats, and dinosaurs. These creatures now gaze upon a framed photo of the daughter with her gymnastics trophy. (The daughter switched from gymnastics to swimming two years ago when she shot up four inches in height, right after this portrait was taken.)

All the objects and framed pictures have been polished with soft cloths, which the trespasser then deposited in the hallway hamper. Piled on top of the hamper are a dozen pretty boxes of facial tissue in gray, blue, and yellow, each box opened, with a few tissues extracted.

The trespasser pretended to be visiting her own family’s cottage, pretended that the bones in the faces in the photographs were her inherited bones and that she inhabited this place as naturally as the furniture and relics. Although she was alone during the week, the trespasser rearranged the living room so the old leather and wicker chairs are now turned toward each other, forming a conversation nook instead of facing the TV. She vacuumed the living room and then changed the bag and vacuumed again, sucking up all the cobwebs and even the ask from the fireplace.

At first there seem to be a few objects missing from the daughter’s room, but the daughter discovers them in her closet, where the trespasser slept five nights in a nest created from all the pillows in the house. She curled there with two stuffed ponies and a unicorn, the pink flannel pajamas that say Daddy’s Girl, and the secret purple spiral notebook that is identical to the one the daughter keeps in the city. The trespasser read and reread the notebook in which the daughter has detailed frustration about a poor swim performance and about boys, and at other times has written that she is overwhelmed by pain that feels larger than herself, pain that connects her to girls she never talks to but only sees from a distance, tough girls she is afraid of, with their heavy eyeliner and the way they glare back at her if she looks too long.

The daughter has made it more than thirteen years without having spent a night with her dresser pushed up against her bedroom door to keep her mother’s friends out. Nobody has ever burned her face with a cigarette, and she has never burned her own arms with cigarettes just to remember how terrible it feels. The swimming daughter has never tried to shoot up with a broken needle, never spent time in the juvenile home or in the filthy bathroom of an abandoned basement apartment, has never shaken uncontrollably in the back seat of a car all night long. The daughter has never broken a window to crawl into somebody else’s place, has never needed something so badly that she would do anything for three men, strangers, to get it.

The trespasser has been moving along the riverbank, crouching low, and now she comes upon a wooden rowboat belonging to a neighbor. She unties the rope, climbs in, and pushes off before she realizes she has no oars. The current catches the boat, and over the next several hours, she floats downstream. Sometimes the wind catches the boat and it spins.

It is the teenaged daughter, the swimmer, the honor student, who discovers her own missing mattress on the river-side porch, screams “Mommy!” a term she hasn’t used in years. The trespasser had dragged the mattress out onto the porch as soon as the man had gone. The daughter studies the sheet, torn off, tangled at one end, the quilted fabric of the mattress crusted with jism, more jism than the daughter’s mother has ever seen. The mother takes the daughter’s hand, tries to tug her away, but the daughter sees there’s blood too, smeared across the fabric, dried and darkened.

“Don’t look,” her mother says, but the daughter keeps looking. The daughter inhales the scent of the crime, knows she has walked through the ghost of this crime and felt its chill–in the hallways of her school, in the aisles of the convenience store, and in the gazes of men and women at the Lake Michigan beach where she and her friends swim.

That night, after the trespasser’s boat runs aground near a liquor store in a strange town, the daughter goes to sleep in the small bedroom off the kitchen, the room her father jokingly calls the maid’s room. The dream that scares her awake over and over is the dream of entering a stranger’s bedroom–only it is her room–and encountering there her own body, waiting.

Reprinted from “The Trespasser” from American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Copyright (c) 2009 Wayne State University Press, with the permission of Wayne State University Press.

Also in this issue, an interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell:
Moving Objects: Transformation as Crisis Action in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser”


Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of Women and Other Animals, Q Road, and American Salvage. She is the winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction and the Southern Review’s 2008 Eudora Welty Prize. Her stories have appeared in Southern Review, Kenyon Review, andOntario Review. American Salvage was a 2009 finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction.