At the Lake
When I was a kid, we didn’t take long car rides for the heck of it, or eat fast food. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down clothes, and he sometimes wore my dad’s. My mom got her hair done in town at the Sit ‘n Set instead of one of the nicer places at the mall or in the JC Penney’s. The one time of the whole year that we did something just for us—and just for fun—was the week in the summer that we spent at the lake. Every 4th of July, we rented the same little cabin and would drive the two hours to Teeters Campground. We’d spend the week feeling like rich folks, lounging around, swimming, doing just about everything we could outside, and letting the sun heat us up from the outside in. Sometimes I felt like I soaked that sun in, stored it up so that it could carry me through all those months ahead. We went every year, until the year that my brother John was 16 and I was 13. This was the year my brother’s girlfriend came to the lake with us, and never went home.
I don’t have to spend time waxing poetic on how much I looked up to my brother. You all know that story already and can fill in the blanks however you want. Here are a few things to get you going: John was tall and narrow, tanned in the summer as brown as a berry. His hair was lighter than mine and cut close to his head. Mine was always flopping around and in my eyes. He was smart and funny, and never got annoyed with my hanging around. He liked history and was going to join one of those groups that did Civil War reenactments, and he would be on the Confederate side because they never had enough. Pictures: me riding on handlebars; me and him sitting on the pier, feet dangling in the green water, fishing for bluegill or trout, but catching only a snapping turtle; John looking into a sparkler on the 4th of July, his face too close to the hot light, but not moving back; me, standing on the porch and looking after John and Carrie as they walked away, their fingers just barely touching.
Carrie was John’s first girlfriend, I think. At least the first out-of-school one who would come to our house for dinner some nights and who he’d walk home. I knew they had kissed one night that spring in our backyard because I saw them out the window of the bedroom my brother and I shared. When he came upstairs, I made smooching noises and he threw a pillow at my head.
I thought Carrie was pretty, with her straight blonde hair that hung all the way to her butt, and her long legs. She was little, too, hardly up to my brother’s shoulder. That made me feel like she was someplace in between John and me, and that made me like her more. She was also not like the other girls. She wore black a lot, and usually long sleeves even when it was warm. Sometimes John would tell my mom about how Carrie got in fights with her parents. Looking back, I don’t know if this was true, or it if was a scheme that John and Carrie had devised to soften up my parents. Whether that was the goal or not, it must have worked, because my mom and dad agreed to let Carrie come with us to the lake.
I think we were all surprised, and I was immediately angry. I’d asked just the summer before for Caleb, my then-best-friend, to come with us and had been given a swift no. “This is family time,” my dad has said, and that was the end of the discussion.
“What about family time?” I asked when Mom announced at dinner one night that she and Dad had decided Carrie could come.
“Well, Carrie is like family,” she said, and I rolled my eyes. I liked Carrie well enough, but I liked her in Rawlings, where she spent maybe two hours in my life, and then went home. I didn’t like her at the lake, and I didn’t like what her being at the lake was going to mean.
“Look, Joshy,” Mom said later that night when we were alone. “John is getting older, and things are going to change. He’ll always be your brother, and he’ll always love you, but you’ll have to let go a little. Understand?”
“You know they will probably have sex at the lake,” I said. I hadn’t meant to say it, but it just came out. That spring, I’d sat red-faced and twitchy in Mr. Bottoms’ class as he gave all the boys “the talk.” Ever since then, I’d been wanting to ask John if he and Carrie were doing it, or when they were going to, because Mr. Bottoms said that teenagers were all like sneaky monkeys, always trying to find some hideout to “do it” in.
“Josh!” My mother, understandably, was horrified, and slapped me hard across the leg. It didn’t hurt, but I buried my face in my pillow anyway.
“Someday, you’ll understand why your dad and I have made this decision,” she said after taking a few calming breaths. “And you’ll hope that we’ll make the same decision for you.”
My parents were happy that John had a girlfriend. Too happy, really, and now I realize that John with a girl—especially a pretty girl like Carrie—had eased some fear they’d had about him. He was gangly and bookish, soft-spoken and shy. He was the kind of boy about whom my grandfather would say, “If he ain’t queer, he’s missing a good shot at it.” When John brought home a girl, they could breathe a little easier and that question, it seemed, was answered.
So, perhaps my parents were too eager to please and weren’t thinking clearly when they agreed to bring Carrie to the lake. It’s true, they barely knew her, and had only talked to her mother on the phone for ten minutes. But when Carrie showed up at our house at 5:30 the morning that we were leaving for the lake, wearing a funny fisherman’s hat and rolling a battered brown suitcase up our sidewalk, even I smiled, and maybe that was the moment that I started to fall in love with her too.
Carrie sat in the middle of the backseat, on the hump between me and John. She was wearing narrow jean shorts that came to her knees, and the skin on her legs was so shockingly white that I had to keep staring at it. John and Carrie were holding hands, and Carrie was talking fast, chattering about never getting to go anywhere with her family, and how excited she was to swim and see the fireworks over the water. I was brooding, feeling put out about not having enough room and being crowded against the window. Then, Carrie grabbed my hand and interlaced her fingers with mine. I started to yank my hand away, but her hand was warm and soft. She pulled the ball of our hands over into her lap, where it met the hand ball that she and John had made. I saw John glance over at me, but I couldn’t read the expression on his face. It wasn’t angry, exactly, but it wasn’t pleased, either. I decided to leave my hand right there with hers, and we rode like that all the way to the lake.
The campground was called Teeters Lodge, but there was no lodge, only six small cabins on 150 acres mostly circling the lake. Each cabin had enough land around it that you didn’t have to see your neighbors if you didn’t want to, and we never wanted to. The cabins were cheap enough because they were shoddy. Of course, now people would just call them rustic and charge even more for the experience of no air conditioning and the cracks in the walls. There were communal showers and bathrooms down close to the access road, but none in the cabins. There was, thankfully, running water and electricity to operate a little refrigerator that rattled all night long. There were two tiny bedrooms and a “family room,” sparsely decorated with an old couch and two chairs—furniture that remained the same all the years we visited, except for looking a little sadder and finally, the summer Carrie came with us, one of the legs fell off the brown chair. We sat in it anyway, lopsided with one corner resting on the dusty wood floor. John and then Carrie on his lap, and then me, pulled down by her as I walked past. A giggling pile until John pushed us both off, hard onto the floor. Carrie still laughed, but the look on John’s face wasn’t funny to me.
Maybe because she was always wearing long sleeves, the first time I saw Carrie in her bathing suit was shocking. Her arms were skinny, and every bit of her so white that she nearly glowed. She wore a sweatshirt down to the pier and only pulled it off as she got ready to jump into the water. John and I were already in the lake. It was our ritual to throw our bags in the cabin and dash to the pier, shedding clothes as we went. Years of experience had taught us to wear our swim shorts on the car ride to the lake so no time was wasted. Carrie, though, vacation newbie that she was, had to go into the tiny back bedroom that the three of us would share, and change.
John and I were hollering and splashing, trying to dunk each other in the cold lake water, until we saw Carrie tentatively at the end of the pier, her toes just barely over the edge. Her bathing suit was blue and she was so small that it sagged a little in the important places.
“Quit staring,” John said and smacked the back of my head. I started to say that he was staring too, but didn’t want another smack, and I guessed that it was okay for him since Carrie was his girlfriend.
“Is it cold?” Carrie shouted out to us. She already looked freezing, her arms crossed around her chest and her skin so pale that she might have just been thawed out of a glacier.
“Some,” John called back to her. “But it feels good. Hey Carrie, can you swim?”
“Not real good. I think I’ll just dip my toe,” she said and lowered herself down onto the pier. She let first one and then the other long leg over the edge. I watched as she dipped a toe, shivered, pulled it out, and then let her whole foot drop down into the water.
John started swimming back towards the shore, so I followed.
“Come on in,” he said when he got closer to Carrie. He bobbed in the water, close to her submerged foot. Then, he touched the foot and ran his hand up her calf. I stayed back, feeling once again on the outside of the circle. I smacked the water. This is what I knew would happen. John and Carrie together and me, dogpaddling around the edges.
“No, not right now,” Carrie said, and pretended like she was kicking John’s hand away. He tugged her foot and she giggled. “Stop it,” she said, and he tugged again, harder. I let myself float closer, and saw the intense look on John’s face. Carrie hadn’t realized it yet, but John wasn’t going to let her go. I knew that as sure as I knew when we wrestled around on the living room floor that he wasn’t going to let me up until he was good and ready. Even if I said “uncle.” Even if I cried.
John latched his hand around Carrie’s other ankle and tugged again, pulling her forward on the pier.
“Ow!” Carrie said, not giggling anymore. “Come on, John. Stop it.”
“Hey, John,” I said. “Let’s race. First one to the big rock wins.”
“Not now, Josh,” he said, not looking at me. He pulled Carrie’s ankle again, hard enough to move her closer to the edge. “Carrie has to get wet. Think of it as an initiation, Carrie. You ain’t one of us until you get in Coffin Lake.”
“Coffin Lake?” Carrie said. She was smiling, but I could tell that it was a fake one. Her hands were scurrying around on the dock, trying to find a place to hold on. The lake was really called Coughlin Lake, but John had misheard when we were real little, and it had been Coffin Lake to us ever since. We used to tease each other: “Ew, don’t swallow the Coffin water! You’re going to be a zombie if you swallow the Coffin water.”
John tugged her again, so hard that her butt bounced a little on the boards.
“Come on, John,” Carrie said. “You’re hurting me. Let go.”
“I’m hurting you?” he asked, and floated closer. He let go of her ankle, and I was relieved. He moved closer still until her legs were on either side of his head, and he kissed the inside of her knee. Carrie laughed, also clearly relieved, and leaned forward as if to kiss him back. Just then, John was able to thrust himself out of the water enough to grab her legs and push her off the pier. She was too surprised to scream, I think, her arms flailing and scraping her skin along the rough pier boards as she went. John was laughing. I was too stunned to move.
Carrie went in face first, her cheek smacking the water. She came up quickly, but was splashing around, panicking and trying to keep her head above water.
“The water’s not so deep there, Carrie,” John said. “Just put your feet down and stand up.” He was still holding on to one of the pier posts, bobbing up and down. No matter how old I get, how many years pass from that summer, I will never forget how his head bobbed above the water, like some floating thing not attached to a body beneath the lapping surface of Coffin Lake.
Carrie had landed close to me, so I paddled over to her. We were close to the same size, so I was able to grab hold of her. I didn’t know what I was going to do exactly. I didn’t know how to rescue anyone from drowning. I was just trying to calm her down. John forgot that Carrie was shorter than him. He might have been able to touch the bottom of the lake there, but I couldn’t, and neither could she. Carrie wrapped her arms around my neck, so tightly that she was choking me. I quickly realized that in her panic, she was pushing me under.
“Carrie!” I said, sputtering on a mouth full of Coffin water. “You gotta stop that!” I had one arm around her waist and I made a move with my other arm to get us closer to shore, something like trying to swim, but it didn’t really amount to anything. Instead of rescuing Carrie, I’d just created a bigger splashing mass of arms and legs.
I hadn’t seen him come over to us, but John was there, and quickly untangled me from Carrie with a shove to my chest. Then Carrie’s arms were around his neck and he was making his way to shore, walking as if it were so easy. He carried her up onto the little sandy shore. I thought for a moment that he was going to drop her into the grass, but he didn’t. He laid her down carefully, and sat down next to her, stroking her arm and pushing her wet hair back from her face as she coughed. What he’d wanted all along was to be able to save her, and I almost ruined it by doing it myself. One evil look from my brother as I collapsed, panting and exhausted, in the grass next to them told me that.
“I’m sorry, Baby,” John said to her. He kissed her shoulder and tried to hug her. She didn’t push him away, but I could tell that her body was stiff and ungiving. Over his shoulder, she locked eyes with me and, it was fleeting, but I saw fear. Real fear. Then, I mistook it for shock from her near drowning, but now I realize that the fear was not of Coffin Lake, but of my brother. She was just learning to be afraid.
Carrie recovered quickly from her scare, and by that night was sitting around the campfire, licking chocolate from the s’mores from her fingers and asking me if I knew the words to “Kum Ba Yah.”
“I know it’s silly,” she said, “but that’s always what the perfect families do in the movies. Sit around the campfire and sing Kum Ba Ya.”
I didn’t know the words, but wished so badly that I did that I almost made some up just to please her. Even though she’d been afraid in the water, and I had been too, I couldn’t quit thinking about how it felt to have her arms, wet and cold, around my neck; her bare legs touching my bare legs; my arm around her waist. Just the memory of how her thin swimsuit moved under my hand made a thick lump rise in my throat.
Any time John caught me staring at Carrie, he’d shoot me a dirty look, or sock me hard in the shoulder.
We had some good days at the lake. Sometimes John and Carrie would disappear into the woods and come back looking happy and drunk, hair full of grass, dirt stains on the back of their shorts. I was a dumb kid, but even I had some vague idea of what they’d been doing. I still don’t understand why my parents pretended not to notice, or why Carrie’s parents had agreed to let her come. I didn’t think much about it then. As a kid, you think you know everything, and that everything you want is also what’s right, and that adults just don’t get it. It’s the adults’ job, though, to protect kids from themselves. I don’t think mine did their jobs, and neither did Carrie’s.
As much as it annoyed John, Carrie tried to include me as much as she could. Sometimes she’d ask me to go on walks with them, then John would sulk and say he was going swimming instead. He was in the water a lot that summer, swimming long laps from the big rock and back. It never looked like he was having much fun; it was more like he was working.
When Carrie and I walked alone, we’d go farther than she and John, who I think usually just found a spot far enough away from the cabin so that they wouldn’t be seen. I’d take her to the overlook where you could see down into gulley. The trees were so green and thick. They looked like a blanket, soft and lush. Once John and I had seen an eagle—or at least we thought it was an eagle. I wanted to show that to Carrie so badly that my eyes were inventing fake eagles in every bird I saw.
“I love it here,” she said. She was sitting on a rock, so close to the edge of the cliff that I was nervous. While she was afraid of the water, I had quickly realized that there wasn’t much else that scared her, including the height of the gulley. “I wish I never had to leave.”
“Maybe your family can come up here sometime,” I said. I wanted to sit next to her, but my cautiousness kept me far away from the edge. She was afraid of nothing, but I was afraid of almost everything.
“My family doesn’t really go anywhere,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked. Carrie shrugged a shoulder and stared out over the gap. There was so much in that shrug. Carrie, poised on the rock, so tiny and so big at the same time. That is a picture I pull from my memory over all the others. And there are others. There’s her on the pier, my brother pulling her ankle; her eyes after he rescued her; Carrie with a wet rag in the bedroom, wiping at the painful scrapes on the backs of her legs. I suppose I didn’t do a very good job of protecting her either, but I was just a kid. Isn’t that the embarrassing, shameful thing we always say? I was just a kid.
“Josh, come help me up,” Carrie said, and motioned for me to come closer to the edge. She held out her hand for me to take. I inched my way towards her, and put my hand in hers. I was afraid that she would pull me, trying to get me closer to the edge. That’s what John would have done. But Carrie just smiled, and pulled herself up. When she got to her feet, she didn’t let go of my hand, and she held it all the way back to the cabin. We swung our arms and talked about things like what teachers she hoped she got the next year and how she liked the fast rollercoasters at Kennywood, but not the tall ones. I wanted to ride a roller coaster with Carrie. I wanted to see her hair flying out behind her and hear her screaming with pure joy. I hated rollercoasters, but I would ride one with Carrie.
When we got back to the cabin, still holding hands and swinging arms, John was on the porch, looking annoyed and sunburned. Carrie’s face broke into a big smile when she saw him, but froze when she saw the expression on his face.
“Where have you been?” he said, stomping toward us.
“I took her to the overlook,” I said.
“Shut up,” he said to me, but glared at Carrie. He grabbed her wrist, the one attached to the hand that was attached to my hand, and yanked her free.
“John! Jesus, calm down,” I said. Normally I would not talk back to my brother, but I was emboldened by Carrie, by the memory of touching her skin all the way from the overlook.
John turned on me then. “I said to shut up, Joshy. No one asked you.” He pushed me hard in the middle of my chest, so hard that I fell back and landed on my butt in the grass. I wasn’t hurt, but embarrassed to be revealed as an obvious child, manhandled by my skinny armed older brother.
“I want to talk to you,” John said to Carrie and started dragging her back towards the cabin. “I brought you up here to be with me,” I heard him say. “Not makeout with my little brother.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “He’s just a kid. We were just having fun.” That was the last thing I heard them say before they disappeared around the side the cabin, headed towards the lake. It was enough, though, enough to make me feel like something ripped inside my stomach, a pain that shot though my chest and brought tears to my eyes.
That night Carrie was quiet and at the bonfire sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, staring into the flames. I was quiet, too, but no one seemed to notice. The absence of Carrie’s chatter, her questions and giggles, was more obvious. Even my father, who had mostly ignored Carrie and John since we’d arrived at the lake, tried talking to her.
“What are your folks doing this holiday weekend, Carrie?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Probably nothing. They might take my little sister down to the park to see the fireworks. We do that sometimes.” My ears perked up at that. This was the first mention I’d heard of a little sister. I wondered how old she was. She must have been younger than me because there was no one with Carrie’s last name in my grade.
“Oh, that sounds nice,” my mother said. “I miss that. Here we just put off our own little fireworks, you know, which is nice but it’s not the same.”
“Remember that year when that neighbor kid nearly blew his hand off?” John said. He, unlike Carrie, was full of conversation. It was like they had switched personalities. He was sitting close to her, had part of him touching her at all times. I noticed that they didn’t hold hands, though. It was more John touching Carrie than Carrie touching back. “Remember that they had to get that ambulance up here and how long it took? I bet that kid lost his whole hand, don’t you think?”
“Christ, John,” Dad said. “That was terrible. Why bring that up?”
“I don’t know,” John said, tossing a rock into the fire. The sparks flew up and danced brightly into the night sky. “Because it was some excitement.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say, John,” my mother said. “That poor boy. I haven’t seen that family back since.”
I didn’t know it then, but we wouldn’t be back either. After that summer, Teeters Campground and Coffin Lake would be gone for us, and we would be the family others told stories about as they sat around the campfire. Another family would move into our summer cabin, laugh as they sat in the chair without a leg. Another set of brothers would race to the big rock, dare each other to jump off.
That year, the 4th was on a Saturday, and we’d leave the next day, headed back to our normal life of me and John in a too-small room, Carrie at home with her parents and little sister. That morning was beautiful, sunny and warm but not too hot. I got up early because I wanted to swim in the lake by myself while John snored. I noticed that Carrie was gone too. She’d been sleeping in the top bunk, and John slept on the bottom. I, of course, had a sleeping bag on the floor, but I didn’t mind because from there I could see Carrie. She slept like a broken doll, twisted and tangled, her head thrown over the side, hair dangling.
That morning I came upon Carrie sitting in the grass, looking at the bottom of her bare foot. The bugs had been eating Carrie alive, mosquitos, and gnats, and wasps. I’d often see her digging at an ankle or an elbow. Sometimes John would sit behind her and scratch the bumps on her back. Once, I even caught her with a stick, pushing at some hard to reach itch. That morning, it was a bumblebee. It had been lying in the grass, and she’d stepped on it.
“I know I should have been wearing shoes,” she said when she saw me. I saw the fat tears running down her cheek and tears sprang to my eyes too, in sympathy. I knew just how bad that hurt because I’d done it myself, that white hot pain and then the itch that you can’t quite find to scratch.
“Come on back to the house and we’ll put something on it,” I said, trying to sound like a grown-up, like someone who could do things and wasn’t “just a kid.” My mom put something on bee stings, I remembered, but I didn’t quite know what. Maybe flour? Some kind of powder that was up in the cabinet. I knew, then, that I’d have to ask my mother when we got back, and that would have only solidified my kid status in Carrie’s mind, so I dropped down in the grass next to her.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Isn’t it sad that he died? They die after they sting you, right? I don’t know where he went. I just hit at him to get him off my foot, and he flew over there, somewhere.” She motioned to the high grass on her right, and I thought about going over to look, but I knew that even if I found the bee, it would likely be dead, and that would have made Carrie sadder. “I didn’t mean to.”
“He’s probably fine,” I said. What I started to say was that it was just a dumb bug—that’s what John would have said—but I stopped myself. “Want me to look at it?”
Carrie smiled and wiped the tears from her face. “I’m really fine, Joshy. You’re a sweetie. Will you promise to stay that way?”
“What? A sweet little kid?” Carrie poked her bottom lip out and reached over to me. She put her hand in my hair, but didn’t ruffle it like I thought she might. She just put it there, touched my scalp where almost no one else ever did.
“Don’t be silly. Listen, tonight’s our last night. I want it to be really special, okay? Will you do something for me?”
“Sure,” I said. I expected her to propose some plan for John, something to make their last night together the best, but instead she asked me to meet her.
“At the pier, after the fireworks your parents brought, okay? I just want to sit there for a few minutes, and I want to do it with you. Can you get away?” I knew that Carrie hadn’t been back to the lake since that first day. It had been a constant irritation to John, who wanted to swim with her, and touch her in her blue swimsuit, but she refused. She’d sit on the bank, far from the water and watch us, but wouldn’t come back down on the pier.
“Sure,” I said again. What could she have asked me, then, that I wouldn’t have done?
All day I waited. I watched Carrie and John leave on one last walk as I helped my mom clean up the cabin. I packed my things, and then packed John’s too because I wanted something to do while I waited. Carrie’s clothes were everywhere, and I thought briefly about picking them up, but changed my mind. Touching her shirts, her hooded sweatshirt, could be like touching her and I didn’t think she’d want me to. Besides, I liked seeing those things lying around, like little pieces of her, discarded but waiting.
When they came back, I was sitting on the porch, reading a comic book I’d brought from home. I’d actually brought several, but hadn’t read them much, mostly because John wasn’t reading them, and if he wasn’t, I figured I shouldn’t either. As they strolled through the yard, I noticed then how much he’d changed this summer. He was still all arms and legs, but he’d “filled out” as my grandma would say. He wasn’t so thin, and he was tanned a dark golden brown. And I could see myself in him—we had the same eyes, the same mess of curly hair. Seeing him turn into a good looking person gave me hope that one day I might be okay for girls like Carrie to look at too.
“Hey, kid,” John said, and plucked the comic out of my hand. “Is this mine?”
“No,” I said and snatched it back. “It’s mine. Jerkwad.”
“Asshat,” he said and flicked my ear. It hurt, but I smiled because this was the old John, harassing me and in a good mood.
“I packed up your stuff,” I said. “You weren’t going to do it.”
“Thanks, Joshy. You’re swell.” He gave me a hug around the neck that was more of a headlock, and rubbed a hard noogie on the top of my head.
“Did you do mine?” Carrie asked. She looked somehow even paler than usual, and sounded distracted.
“No, but I can if you want me to,” I said, too quickly.
“Oh, I can do it if you want me to,” John mocked me in a high pitched girl’s voice, then made kissing noises towards Carrie. “Please, let me be your slave.”
“Shut up,” I said, feeling my face and ears grow hot.
“You wouldn’t turn so red if it wasn’t true,” John said, and slugged me hard on the arm, harder than usual, so hard that tears jumped to my eyes.
“Leave him be,” Carrie said. John stopped smiling and shot her a slant-eyed look.
“Well, maybe you want him to be your slave, huh, Carrie? Your tiny little baby boyfriend.”
“I can pick up my own stuff, that’s all I’m saying.” She tried to squeeze past him and into the cabin, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her back towards him. “Let go,” she said. John’s face softened, and he nuzzled into her cheek.
“Don’t be mad. I was just messing with the kid. We do it all the time. That’s how brothers are. Right Joshy?”
“Right,” I said, but my arm was still throbbing, and I felt the sob rising in my throat. I jumped up from my seat and darted from the porch. I ran towards the lake, not looking back, only thinking about jumping in the Coffin water, which I did, with all of my clothes on. I dove down as far as I could, down until my lungs burned like my shoulder did.
We built a fire that night for the last time, and put hotdogs and marshmallows on long sticks to roast. My hot dog, as usual, fell into the fire. John laughed and said something nasty about my burnt wiener. I didn’t care, because I knew later I would meet Carrie at the pier.
My parents always bought some fireworks from one of the roadside stands that popped up around the end of June. There were jumping jacks that flew up off the ground before twirling around and quickly dying in the grass. There were fountains that sprayed colored sparks. My favorites were the Roman candles that shot out of a tube and crackled brightly in the air. That, I think, was the thing that nearly blew off that neighbor boy’s hand, so only my father was allowed to hold the Roman candle tube, and my mother was standing by with a bucket of water in case any stray spark started a fire. John and Carrie made hearts with sparklers, the after image burning in the air as they kissed. I took handfuls of snappers in their little white bags and popped them against John’s sneaker. He ignored me until one missed his foot and popped against his bare ankle instead. He screamed and started chasing me, laughing, around the yard. It was one of those nights that seemed made for memory.
I saw Carrie slip away when John went inside to change out of his shorts and into long pants. The night had gotten cool and damp. I waited a few seconds, then followed her. When I got there, she was already sitting Indian style on the end of the pier. I pushed off my shoes and sat next to her, letting my feet dangle into the lake.
The moon was nearly full, and cast an eerie light over the lake and onto Carrie’s face. She was staring out over the water, and didn’t turn to me when I sat down.
“Josh,” she said.
“Thanks for coming out here with me.”
“You’re welcome. You ain’t scared of the lake anymore?”
“I never was scared of the lake,” she said. She scooted around so that she was facing me, and motioned for me to do the same. Finally we were sitting knee to knee. In the humid air, our skin stuck together like suction cups.
“You’re a sweet kid,” she said, and put her hands over on my knees. My heart made a sick drop and then leap up into my throat. I swallowed hard and wiped my sweating palms on my shorts. “I wish I could keep you, and this place, forever.”
“You can keep me,” I croaked out. I felt like I had never said a truer thing in my life. Carrie smiled, and pinched my leg a little.
“I love your brother, you know? Maybe someday we’ll all be family. Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
I shrugged and looked away from her. My brother did not deserve her love. I was only a kid, but I knew it.
“Oh, Joshy. You’ll go to school next year, and you’ll find some cute little girl who isn’t a complete and utter disaster.”
“You’re perfect!” I blurted. Why had she asked me out there? It felt like she wanted to twist the knife she’d plunged deep into my heart the first time she’d called me a kid.
“Perfect. Yep, that’s me,” she laughed and pulled her hands back from my knees. “You have no idea—” I don’t know what came over me then. It was as though the pressure that had been building up in my chest, in my head, since the beginning of the week finally made me crazy. I lunged at Carrie, grabbed her around the shoulders and kissed her hard on the mouth. I suppose she was too surprised to move at first, and I felt my teeth smash against her lip. I tasted blood, and I wasn’t sure if it was hers or mine, until she finally pushed me away.
“Shit, Josh! You busted my lip!” Carrie said and patted at the spot on her lower lip with a finger tip.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, horrified at what I’d done. I put my head down into my hands, humiliated. There was no pleasure in that kiss; only pain and embarrassment.
“Sillly,” Carrie said, and pulled my hands away from my face. “I would have kissed you if you’d asked.”
“You hate me now.” The sobs were rising up in my throat, and I knew I was about to cry like the baby I was.
“How could I hate you?” Carrie said, her face so close to me now that I could smell the sweetness of her breath. “You’re perfect.” It was like a dream, Carrie’s face close to mine, and then her lips, soft and wet and a little slippery from the blood touching my lips. I had apparently also busted my own lip from that first disastrous attempt because the pressure from Carrie’s mouth made my lips burn and pulse. I could not believe what was happening. It was a perfect thing, and Carrie and I, for that moment, were two perfect people. I shut my eyes and reached for her.
When Carrie’s lips were ripped away, I opened my eyes and expected to see her laughing at me, or looking sad that I was so young and dumb. Instead, I saw her flying up and back, John behind her. He had a handful of hair and was yanking her to her feet.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he screamed. Carrie thrashed around, trying to get out of his grip. “What are you doing to my little brother?”
“Let me go, John!” Carrie said, and he did, so quickly that she fell back down onto to the dock, now bobbing and swaying from all the weight and movement.
I stood up, maybe to help her or maybe to stand between her and John, I wasn’t sure.
“John—” I started.
“Get back to the cabin,” he said, no longer shouting, but staring down at Carrie with that calm, intense stare, that one I knew not to try and argue with. “Go on.”
I don’t know why I went. Maybe it was because I was scared of John. That would be the best story, wouldn’t it? That I was afraid he’d hurt me? But I don’t know if that’s it, or at least if that’s the only reason. He was my older brother. I loved him, and I feared him, and I respected him, and I hated him. I always would. And I was confused. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went back to the cabin. I didn’t look back. I didn’t hear the splash of someone falling off the dock into the Coffin water. I didn’t see Carrie’s arms thrashing as she tried to stay afloat, or John standing at the end of the dock, his arms crossed as though he’d made an important decision. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I never did.
A blonde girl sits on the edge of the dock, her legs swinging and feet kicking at the water. She’s wearing a blue bathing suit, and her skin is so pale that she nearly glows. She is eight, but small for her age. She is mine.
Her older brother is in the water, paddling around and trying to convince her to come in.
“Come on, Margo,” he says, and makes a grab for her ankle. “I won’t let you drown.”
“Daddy said that it’s coffin water,” I hear her say. I shout out to Brian to leave her alone, that she’ll get in when she’s ready, and go back to the lawn chair I’d been sitting in to watch them. There is an open beer there, a novel, and my cell phone. My wife is up at the cabin, making sandwiches and a summer salad. I promised the kids that later we’d build a bonfire. This is the first time I’ve been back to Teeters Campground since I was 13.
This has been one of the driest summers in anyone’s memory. There were stories in the news every day about receding water levels. Just last week, I read about a lake in Michigan that was lower this year than any time in history, so low that the top of a car that had been driven into the lake in 1965 became visible. Recovery crews came in and found four skeletons, still sitting in the same seats they’d been in nearly 50 years before. That night, I searched for Teeters on the internet, and found that nothing much had changed except their rental rates. The fact that they had a vacancy on 4th of July weekend seemed like fate.
The phone rings five times before John’s wife picks up. “Hey sweetie!” she says when she hears my voice. I picture Lori on the other end, redheaded and big boned. I can hear the smile. She is John’s third wife, my favorite so far.
“Hey Lori,” I say. “Can I talk to my brother?”
“He’s down in the man cave, so it’ll take a minute. When are you guys going to come and visit us? I miss those kiddos!”
“Soon, maybe,” I say, though I know it is a lie. I see my brother once, maybe twice a year, and usually that is at my parents’. I haven’t been to John’s house for two years, since the time I’d seen a bracelet of bruises on Lori’s wrist and a tenseness in her smile that I recognized.
“Hey little Joshy,” John says when he finally gets to the phone. “Long time no see.”
“Guess where I am,” I say. There is a silence that tells me he guesses correctly, as I knew he would.
“Tell them kids not to drink the Coffin water,” he says. “What are you doing there, Josh?”
“You know,” I say. “Just checking things out.”
I don’t know why they didn’t look harder for Carrie. The morning after the 4th of July, her things were gone. My parents, John, and I searched the woods. We went to the overlook and asked at all of the neighboring cabins. I never mentioned the fight at the dock; I never asked John what happened after I left. I knew that I couldn’t. There was nothing I could do. I was just a kid.
Finally, my dad called Carrie’s parents, and then called the police. They asked a lot of questions. I heard John telling them that Carrie had been acting weird the day before, and I told them that she said she didn’t want to go home. It wasn’t a lie, not really, but it felt like a betrayal anyway.
It turned out that Carrie hadn’t been lying either, when she told me that I didn’t really know her. She’d had a lot of trouble at home, and had even run away a couple times. It was easy for everyone to believe that she’d done it again, but better. For a while there were even reports of people seeing her in the town closest to Teeters, back home, even as far as Las Vegas or New York. Carrie was everywhere and nowhere.
John didn’t talk to me about that night, and I never asked. As far as I know, he never said her name again. It was as though once she was gone, he put everything about her in a drawer, and once that drawer was shut, he didn’t open it or think about it again. I did, though. I thought about her all the time, every day. I felt the burn on my lips when she kissed me, and the look on her face when the bumblebee stung the bottom of her foot. When I saw John’s next girlfriend jump out of a still moving car to get away from him, I thought of Carrie. When his first wife filed divorce papers and claimed that he hit her, when no one in my family believed her. When John called my wife a bitch at his second wedding reception, then apologized to her with roses and tickets to see her favorite band. When John held my baby Margo and his big hand covered her tiny, new head, his fingers gently brushing the soft spot, I thought of Carrie. She’s always reminding me of what I could have done for her, but didn’t, and what I could have stopped, but wouldn’t. Carrie has haunted me, all my life.
“Is it just like you remembered?” John asks.
“More or less,” I say. “There’s new furniture in the cabin, but I kind of miss that old brown chair.” I watch as Margo stands up. Brian has floated farther out in the lake, and I can tell that he is waiting for her. She turns and starts walking back towards the shore, and I think that she’s given up, will not swim in Coffin Lake.
“What do you expect to find there, Joshy?” John says, just as Margo turns, and I realize what she’s going to do. I stand up. She is running, and I start to scream, to tell her to stop, but she is a streak of blonde and blue. She is running faster than is possible, and is running in slow motion. She is leaving a trail of ghost girls behind her. I blink, but the girls are still there, pale and wearing blue swimsuits, girls that were afraid to jump into the water. Margo is jumping. She is a cannonball. Her brother is waiting there to catch her, or to push her down. “What are you looking for?” John asks.
Margo pops up, and Brian grabs her. They are squealing and splashing, celebrating the tiny girl’s courage. If she was ever lost, I would never stop looking for her. I would never stop.
“I have to go,” I say, and then am I running too. I am diving. My clothes are heavy, but they do not pull me down.