Pioneers by Travis Dahlke


We pore over Zillow for years until the 2 BD/2 BA starter home materializes from thin air. Below budget but it’s on a lake. Were we lake people? We had never considered living on the water. And lake houses aren’t real houses, they’re vacation cottages and cottages are only temporary. In person, it feels more like a ski lodge left to inherit its melted alpine slope. Every piece of trim throughout the house is particle board made to appear wooden. My husband pauses at the Weber left by the previous owner. He promises we’ll grill every night. Open flame is the healthiest way to prepare meat, he says. Our realtor tells us it’s below asking because the home comes with the spirit of the woman that once lived there. She had suffered a stroke in the bathroom. As our realtor is also a priest, she offers to cleanse the house for half-price. The spirit’s silver-black hair swirls in the shower drain. We find her former Facebook page. One comment says RIP. Another says miss you. Another says happy birthday, drinks soon? In her profile photo she’s young. Her photo is framed by different borders like Pray for ParisI Stand with Kathy Lee, and Proud Aunt. The spirit only shows herself in reflective surfaces. The spirit speaks another language. According to her Facebook, she was born in Caracas, Venezuela. Half the downstairs bathtub is lime stained. Neither my husband nor I will cross it while showering. We don’t mind the spirit until we decide we shouldn’t raise children alongside one and we would in fact need to have our lake lodge professionally exorcised. Our realtor waves a smoldering nugget of sage through each room except the laundry room. We become very good friends with her when she makes a joke about using the extra to flavor roast turkey. She’s also an eye doctor. Neither my husband nor I knew we needed glasses until we met our realtor. Now we can see clear through to the other side of the lake. Now it’s just like Heaven, our realtor says. 


It costs over seven thousand dollars to freeze my eggs. This happens right as my husband loses his job managing a call center that delivers custom flower bouquets. Our realtor buys us a plush baby blanket as a gift. Apricot yellow sewn with the visage of a goose wearing a bonnet. My husband spends every afternoon chopping blocks of pine for a fire pit that came with the yard, which we never use. In the shed he finds gardening gloves that fit perfectly over his small hands. Every plant in the garden is strangled by wild mint. In the photos she had posted of herself drinking mojitos, the spirit was always alone. On the phone with his mother, my husband says the rug was pulled out from under him. Every Sunday, our realtor brings us a trifle made with crushed Butterfingers that we eat together on our enclosed porch. At night, she joins us in watching Yellowstone on Paramount Plus. She falls asleep halfway through every episode and my husband watches CNN with her sleeping next to him. After an oil tanker explodes in the heart of a fourteen car pile-up on an icy Pennsylvanian bridge, I use lip balm to draw a border in the bathroom mirror that says ‘Pray for Pittsburg’ around where our spirit’s face once floated. Our realtor admits the baby blanket she gave us was from an estate sale and that it may have bed bugs, so we bury it in lint and paper towel rolls and drink around the heat it makes in the fire pit. 


Over the course of a single morning, the lake seems to swell four times its size with snowmelt. The mint reaches up the side of the house in rabid tendrils. St. Patrick’s Day is the first day over sixty degrees. Our realtor brings over a crockpot heavy with corned beef. It is staying light out for longer. We wish the porch wasn’t enclosed anymore. Our realtor drinks a beer and says all her friends talk about is what happened in the past and she likes us because we talk about the future. When we look out at the water for long enough, we say we don’t swim because we’ve forgotten about our bodies. Because it’s so nice out, our realtor decides she’ll have more to drink. She holds her phone against the window to take a photo of the sun’s purple drool. Look at the way it’s reflecting in the water. She says it will be perfect for the parishioner newsletter. At night when my husband is asleep, I scrub the bathtub using a Brillo pad soaked in vinegar and salt. I do this while showering. I say out loud, this is called killing two birds with one stone. 


Travis Dahlke is the author of Milkshake (Long Day Press). His work has appeared in Maudlin HouseJoyland, Pithead ChapelJukedVol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere.