They were close to the lake road, thank the Lord. Six hours in the backseat next to Katie was almost not worth the trip.
“Sit back!” her mother said. “Stop breathing down my neck.”
“But I can’t see,” Katie said.
“Listen to your mother.” Her father reached back and flicked Katie on the forehead with his finger. Katie screeched and flopped on the floor mat, pretend-crying.
“Jesus Christ, Richard,” her mother said. She stuck her hand back to Ann. “Hand me my Maalox,” she said. Ann reached back and felt through her mother’s bag for the smooth plastic. Her mother drank straight from the bottle, two long swallows.
The ancient Carry-All bumped over the drive, rutted and ravaged yearly by spring flooding. Ann craned to see if Brad’s family was at the big cabin yet.
“The Eversons are here,” Katie shouted.
“Shut up,” Ann said.
“No playtime until we unpack, munchkins,” her father said. “Your mother’s going to lie down this afternoon.”
Her mother was always going to lie down in the afternoons, though nights she slept in the recliner so her gastritis wouldn’t eat a hole through her neck. Her father went with this no question, nodding along like it made perfect sense. If it wasn’t so pathetic Ann might be sorry for him.
“I just want to feel the water for one sec,” Katie said.
“Nope,” her father said. “ ‘Cabin can’t dos’ are now in effect.”
“Oh great,” Katie said, a billion decibels too loud for sass. Katie was not what you’d call intelligent.
“What?” her father hit the brakes.
“Would you just keep going.” Her mother held the open Maalox bottle against her cheek. Katie grew a second brain cell and kept her mouth shut the remaining 15 seconds.
“We’re here!” her father announced.
Not blind, Ann thought.
Katie scrabbled across Ann’s lap. “Roll down your window,” she said.
“Do not roll down your window,” her mother said.
“Get off,” Ann said, pushing her.
Her parents were fanatical about keeping mosquitoes out of the car. It was one of their major shared interests.
They parked; unpacking commenced.
“I’ll do the drawers.” Ann volunteered for the worst job so she could skip out right after, no grief from her father. She’d be at Brad’s before her mother resigned and her father even had the old pump primed.
“Use bleach,” her mother said, pulling the laundry basket of bedding from the car. “And wash your hands when you’re done.”
“Sick,” Katie said. “You’re going to get maggots on your hands.”
“You’re with me, Katie-Lady,” her father said, lifting his red metal toolbox from the back.
• • •
Ann looked forward to every single thing about these 10 days. Everything they did and saw and brought had been the same her entire life. Campfires, swimming, Brad Everson next door to hang with – all the same. You could count on it, like you could on pretty much everything when you’re 12 years old.
But this year Mrs. Everson wrecked it, orchestrating the blessed adoption of a foster child, Matthew, two months before. “No one was going to take him because he’s 13.” Brad stopped Ann at his front door to explain out of Matthew’s earshot. “My mother said it was time to put our Christian values out where everyone could see them.”
“What about the plan for tonight?”
“If he finds out we didn’t take him he’ll tell,” Brad said. “And don’t say anything about his scars. We’re not supposed to ask.”
• • •
Matthew was a jerk. He made fun of everyone. He said Katie was an idiot and Ann’s father was sloppy. Both things were true, but she didn’t need to hear it from him.
The minute he heard about the overnight plan Matthew was all in and Brad was happy to take credit for being cool. This did not feel cool to Ann. Where once had been a nice little yin-yang/Brad-Ann circle, now was a mean triangle, pointy-edged and harsh and two against one. Brad took off running to show Matthew where the cabin was.
“Wait up,” Ann said. “It’s my family’s homestead.”
“It’s my family’s land,” Brad said.
They decided to meet on the beach at 2 a.m. Brad would get the kindling and lighter fluid; Ann would get blankets and her mother’s cigarette lighter; Matthew would get the benefits. “I’ll bring an extra flashlight for you,” Brad said to Matthew, clearly in love. “Just in case.”
Just in case what? Ann thought. We use it to beat him unconscious? “Good idea,” she said.
She got there first. Eventually Brad’s soft chickadee whistle sounded. She whistled back. “Oooooohh,” Matthew said, his voice a loud slap in the quiet. “Is that your secret whistle?” Ann waited for Brad to shut him down, but he didn’t.
“What are you doing?” Brad asked. Matthew stood at the firepit with his back to them.
“Pissing,” Matthew said.
Ann looked at Brad to share contempt, but then Brad joined in the pissing and Ann didn’t say anything.
Inside Matthew pawed through Cowboy’s crumbling saddles and weird-looking tools. He kicked at the rusted coils of what was once a bed. Ann considered biting him.
“This could be persuasive,” Matthew said, hefting Cowboy’s cattle brand. “What’s the CC stand for?”
“Cowboy Carlson,” Brad said. “That’s Ann’s great-grandpa.”
“Let’s just build the fire,” Ann said.
The flue was clogged with years of pine needles and mud, and the room got smoky immediately.
“Now what?” Brad asked.
“Truth or dare?” Ann said.
“Goody gumdrops!” Matthew sneered. “You guys are lucky one of us isn’t a retard.” He pulled two cans of beer from his coat.
They sat in their triangle and passed around the beers, intermittently coughing from the smoke.
• • •
In seven months Ann’s parents would divorce and there would be no more lake vacations. She would never see Brad again. It would be 10 years before she would fully grasp what a treasure it had been, her life before that August, when nothing forever had happened yet or even seemed possible, and 22 years after that when she heard Brad had died from a brain tumor, she would feel mostly nothing. But today she was 12 and losing at something she didn’t know how to fight for. She felt nervous, looking at the two boys, now brothers of some sort.
• • •
“Truth or dare?” Naturally Matthew got to ask the first question of the game.
“Truth,” Brad said.
“Figures,” Matthew said. “What’s the worst thing you ever did?”
“This,” Brad said immediately.
“Wild,” Matthew said. “Don’t know if I can handle the excitement.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Brad asked.
“Think up your own question,” Matthew said. Then he pulled up his sleeves held his arms out, the scars vivid even in smoky firelight. No one said anything for a long minute.
“I have a dare for Brad,” Ann said, staring at the circles of raised skin.
• • •
Brad didn’t speak to her the rest of the vacation. When Ann came over, Mrs. Everson told her the boys were busy and maybe she should spend some time with her sister. Though it was scorching hot, no one swam much; Brad stayed out of the water completely. Ann got stuck watching Katie most afternoons since her mother had to lie down and Miller Time came earlier by the day for her father. “It’s good practice,” her father told her. “This way you can say you’ve had experience when you start babysitting for actual money.”
• • •
Over time Ann couldn’t remember for certain if Brad took the dare. And if he didn’t, which seemed most likely, could she and Matthew have held him down and done it to him anyway? In hindsight it was unthinkable, though life had taught her that most anything a person could think up had been done to someone, somewhere. Whatever happened at the homestead that night, she must have done something to make Brad look at her like that, like she didn’t exist, but she never got the chance to ask him.
Jessica Halliday teaches writing at Gonzaga University. When she’s not doing that, she writes fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. In her mind, the best thing about time at the lake is the memory of that time, though a person’s memory isn’t always the most reliable source of information.
Lead photo credit: