Mattie and his parents were the few year-round residents at the lake. The rest were summer people; they came during the hot months when the rhododendron blossoms bent heavily toward the earth, and the summer air carried the sweet scent of pine. The bike lane, weaving from the main road into the woods and down to the lakeshore, was crowded with runners, tandem bikes, and groups of families taking a stroll; the lake was spotted with striped sails of Sunfish and motor boats of varying size. The pace quickened in the summer for Mattie and his parents, who owned the only bike and boat rental shop on the east side of the lake; but for the summer people, like the McLeods, it was a time to slow down, to swim and sail, to read books on their porches, to work jigsaw puzzles, and to feel at the end of the day that still not enough had been accomplished.
Cabins of all sizes ringed this small lake in northern Michigan, each having its own weathered dock jutting into the water and a narrow path that pushed through bulrush up to screened porches and open decks. On the western edge of the 245-acre lake, nestled in among tall, white pines, the McLeod family’s cabin seemed to tilt, reaching for the sun that dappled off the water through the branches.
Isabelle pushed the screen door open and let it slam shut behind her. As she ran down the sandy path that led to the dock, she waved to Mattie while he finished wrapping the frayed rope in figure eights around the horn cleat. She watched his tanned arms and hands work, their muscles long and sinewy and roped with veins. He squinted up at her as he grabbed the oars. His hair was tousled and curled over his ears, his smile crooked.
“Hey, Belle, there’s the birthday girl. How does it feel to be 16?”
“Look what I have for you.” He reached into a paper bag resting on the floor of the boat and pulled out a broad-brimmed straw hat. Its red ribbon wrapped around the brim and tied in a bow at the back, draping down. “No more sunburned noses for you.” He placed it carefully on her head.
“Mattie, I love it.”
“Kids, can I get your picture?” Grandma McLeod waved a camera in her hand, carefully stepping over rocks and clumps of grass.
“Hi, Mrs. McLeod.” Mattie planted one of the oars solidly to his side like a staff and draped his arm around Isabelle’s shoulder. The August sun was still high and the air warm against their skin; a slight breeze blew long strands of Isabelle’s dark hair across her face.
Isabelle squinted as she looked across the still lake. The gentle sun peered above the treetops, rising at a more southern point on the lake than she had ever seen, signaling the coming of autumn. Ripples trailing a pair of ducks sparkled and danced at the water’s edge, and fallen golden pine needles twirled in a soft wind against the house. The morning gave promise to a beautiful September day.
“Do you have any idea how sexy you look right now?” Brian was still in bed, propped up against two pillows, his eyes droopy, his hair falling across his forehead.
“You don’t have your contacts in.”
The dinghy that had been tied to the dock next door the night before now glided with a single silhouette rowing slowly to the center of the lake.
“I’m going for a swim.” She turned from the sliding doors that led out to a balcony.
“Oh my God, you know it’s going to be freezing.”
“I’ll just see how far I can get.”
“I’ll watch you from the window, crazy girl.”
“Go back to sleep. I promise I won’t go over my head. Besides, I’m a good swimmer.”
The bed creaked as Brian slumped further down under the covers.
Isabelle struggled to pull up her one-piece bathing suit, slide on her cracked flip flops, and grab a towel all at once. Stumbling, she made her way down the stairs to the living space. A room smaller than she remembered, it had an overstuffed chair covered in knobby brown tweed fabric and a sofa loosely draped in an ill-fitting slip cover of dark green acrylic. Both faced east, out toward the lake. Next to each rested a lamp on metal TV tables. A braided rug of various shades of tan, brown, and green covered a mottled, yellowing linoleum floor; a worn gray path ran from the front door to the sliding door that led to the deck overlooking the water. On one side of the room was a small white refrigerator, sink, and a porcelain-enamel stovetop. The stove had a shallow chip that left a nickel sized spot of base metal showing black. Honey pine wood cabinets stood under a small stretch of Formica counter top and hung on either side of the window over the sink.
On the south wall of the room, a bookcase sagged from its double- and triple-stacked books; the lowest shelf still held Isabelle’s old games and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Opposite that was a large chest of drawers. Hanging above the chest, a wood-framed mirror reflected a blue ceramic bowl filled with pine cones of various sizes and a rooster pitcher labeled Pisa, Italy, in cursive. A Polaroid photograph was stuck diagonally into the frame of the mirror — an image of a girl standing on a dock holding a large straw hat in her hand, her hair in a long plait wrapped around the front of her shoulder and across her bathing suit top. Next to her leaned a sun-bleached, towheaded boy gripping a canoe paddle. The photo was yellowed and creased in the upper corner. Isabelle examined the picture before sticking it back in the slot between the wood and glass, and then opened each drawer of the dresser. Pulling hard, unsticking the bottom one, she found the straw hat from the photograph, its red ribbon crimped but still attached to its brim. She set it on her head before heading out.
The rowboat was probably 500 feet offshore by the time Isabelle made it to the end of the splintered dock, but she still couldn’t tell which direction the silhouette was facing. She almost waved but thought Brian might have decided to watch from the balcony, so she dropped her towel, kicked off the flip flops, and hung her toes off the edge. Jesus, he was right: the water was freezing. The sun glinted off the lake. She didn’t regret not wearing her sunglasses; the brightness eased her. It bleached out the darkness of the past year. The straw hat barely shaded her face, and when she closed her eyes the warm colors behind her lids moved slowly like a kaleidoscope. The slap of the water against the wooden pilings and the cool morning air made the world light and open.
Isabelle forced her feet, ankles, then knees into the frigid water and without a splash slid off the edge of the dock. Keeping her toes from touching the muck at the bottom, her head rose and dipped like a bobber on a fishing line. The skin on her scalp tightened, and her body shuddered from the cold. With her arms circling through the water and her legs scissor kicking, she swam away from the shore until the chill lessened. Then she flipped on her back and stared at the sky. The white underbelly of a loon, his wings stretched wide, glided overhead. Isabelle heard his one-note hoot, signaling his search for family members. The loon circled back, and his long rising and repetitive yodel echoed off the water’s surface, trailing into the branches of pine trees. She knew he was defending his territory. She let her legs drop into the lake, righting herself from the back-float, and doggy paddled in place. She searched for the boat again. The silhouette, a dark speck against the sky, drifted farther and farther away.
After her swim, Isabel moved quietly, trying not to bang too much in the kitchen. She set the black, oily, cast iron frying pan on top of the stove. She pulled out the eggs and bacon and butter she and Brian had bought at the convenience store the night before, nesting them together on the red Formica countertop. Separating and stretching individual slices, she slapped the bacon strips in rows on the heated skillet. The bent metal trim from the counter caught her loosely woven sweater when she moved against it.
“Damn it,” she whispered.
“What’s wrong, babe?”
Isabelle jumped and swung around. Brian stood in the middle of the room watching her.
“I didn’t hear you come down the stairs. Man, you’re light on your feet.” She turned back to the stove where the bacon now sizzled in the pan.
“What are you making?”
“Scrambled eggs and bacon. Or I can do fried or poached.”
“Scrambled’s okay. Would you like me to make them?”
She heard the glass door to the deck slide closed. “No, I’ve got it.” When she turned he was gone, facing out toward the water. She rubbed her thumb against the chip in the porcelain and watched the bacon burn.
The silhouette had disappeared from the lake sometime between Isabelle’s morning swim and the confluence of eggs, toast, and coffee passing under her palate. The dinghy bounced against the dock next door from the afternoon waves and wind, but the house to which it belonged was dark and still. Brian was out on the dock trying to understand the engineering behind a fishing rod while Isabel sat curled reading in the overstuffed chair with its greasy arms and distant smell of rain and earth. She could feel herself drifting off as random images blended with the words on the page. When she awoke, a low cloud cover had snuck in over the lake, casting a hue of green and gray; she turned on the only two lamps in the room.
In the late afternoon, Brian and Isabelle sat on the end of the dock in rusted folding chairs. The clouds had dissipated, leaving thin gray brush strokes against a darkening sky. With the sun setting at their backs, they sipped wine from yellow plastic tea cups.
“Izzy, why are we here?”
The silhouette in the dinghy glided away from the shore again, heading for the center of the lake. She hadn’t seen it leave the dock.
“Because this place is technically yours and mine, now.”
“Let’s sell it.”
“Yea, maybe.” The water churned as the wind picked up. Twilight fell on them like a veil.
“I’d like to hold off for awhile before we do anything.”
“I’m just saying that since this place is practically falling down, maybe we should cut our losses and sell it as-is and be done with it. The land alone, I should think, would be worth something.”
The silhouette bobbed up and down and settled in one spot directly in front of the dock. It looked black against the twilight sky and disappeared from view when it dipped below the skyline.
“I’m not ready to be done with it.”
“Honey, it’s just that since I’ve known you, you’ve never visited this place. Now that your parents are gone, why hang on to it? Let it go. We could use the money.”
“I don’t know why we didn’t come here, Brian.”
“I do.” He held the cup to his lips. “Just look at the place.”
The silhouette traversed the lake heading to the south side. “I’m going in, Brian, I’m cold and it’s getting dark.”
The lake and darkening sky reflected off the glass of the sliding door that had replaced the old wood framed screen sometime in the last 15 years. Isabelle stumbled over its track heading straight for a lamp. She turned the knob and the bulb crackled and popped.
“Shit,” she said aloud.
She reached for the other lamp knocking it to the floor.
The base cracked and the shade popped off. The bulb lay bare against the linoleum floor; the small filament was exposed, with sharp glass edges protruding around it. Her towel and book hit the floor, and as she reached for the broken light, a sob escaped from deep within her throat. She turned the screw of the light switch over and over, clicking faster and faster. Isabelle dropped down to the cold floor squarely with her legs straight out, and, still holding the shattered light, wept.
Several minutes passed with the darkness smothering her. Her skin prickled with sweat. She wondered if Brian had heard the commotion. She made her way to the dresser to where the mirror reflected the only light in the room from the lake. As she stared at the photograph, she let herself remember. His hair had been white and his smile curled up one side forcing a dimple and exposing a slightly protruding tooth. He squinted hard against the sun as though it was a natural state and he was accustomed to it. His wet navy blue swim trunks hung low on his hips, leaving a distinct white line below his tanned torso, and they clung to his thighs from their wetness. His arm dangled casually across her shoulders while his fingers looped under her bathing suit strap at the top of her shoulder. This is how she always thought of him: bright and strong and hanging on to her.
An hour after sunset Brian and Isabelle sat at the square dining table. Candle lights flickered off the wine bottle, leaving shadows from the bowls and plates on the vinyl tablecloth.
“Tell me again how both lamps broke?”
“They didn’t both break. One just burned out, and I accidentally knocked the other one off the table. I’ll get some new ones tomorrow and some light bulbs.”
“There’s really no need.”
“We need more light in this room, Brian.”
“We’ve got the lamp from the bedroom. I’ll take it back up when we go to bed tonight, and then tomorrow we leave.”
“For when we come back.”
“I didn’t know we were coming back. The agency can sell it without us being here.”
“I’m coming back at least once more. You don’t have to come with me. You didn’t need to come this time.” She stabbed the salad with her fork. She had yet to touch the plate of pasta and marinara sauce from a jar. “I’m not going to sell the cabin without going through everything and bringing stuff home.”
“Like my books and the rooster pitcher that I brought back from Pisa for my grandma.”
“Those books are children’s books, Isabelle.” He twirled a mound of spaghetti onto his bent fork and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing slowly and swallowing. With a paper towel, he dapped at the corners of his lips and mustache.
“We’re not going to use the pitcher at home. It’s tacky.”
“I’m taking the things that mean something to me. My grandma was so happy when I gave it to her. That’s where her mother was born.”
“I like the mirror over the dresser.” He pointed over his shoulder, “Minus the photo.”
She knew Brian waited for a reaction. She brought the cracked tea cup half full of red wine to her lips and gazed out the sliding door. The reflection of her sitting across from him, the flickering candles between them, was set against a black background. They looked lonely.
“I’d like to head out by ten tomorrow morning. I’ve got to spend some time at the office in the afternoon.” He leaned back in his chair and drew his fingers through his black hair. With a strong angular face, Brian had an air of authority. His dark eyes were softened by his full eyebrows and long lashes, but his mouth was set with both corners pulling the mustache of his Van Dyke toward his chin.
“That’s fine. I’ve got some shopping to do.” She hesitated as if weighing her next words against his downward smile. “I’ve got lamps to buy.” When he brought the cup to his mouth, all she could see were his eyes. She thought they squinted for a split second.
The photo had been taken late in the afternoon. Given permission to leave the bike shop early, Mattie spent an hour on the lake with her before taking her to the movies. His father gave him the keys to the old family Chevy C10 pickup for the first time since he had gotten his license, to take her to the opening of Star Wars. He woke up early to wash the truck before going to work, vacuuming the interior, and using Windex on the windows. He covered frayed rips in the upholstery with a green-and-white beach towel, stretching it across the bench seat. He inserted Isabelle’s favorite Earth, Wind, and Fire eight-track into a tape deck and queued it up to “Reasons,” her favorite song.
After the movie, Mattie drove Isabelle to a nearby wildlife sanctuary that closed at dark. With Isabelle sitting close enough for him to drape his arm around her shoulder, he gently drove through ruts and over large rocks down a dirt road that wound through a heavy pine forest. Isabelle giggled as her head bounced against his shoulder. When they reached a clearing at the end of the road, a lone silver birch stood tall, spreading its dark branches against a sky brightened by the light of the moon; a clump of mistletoe hung from a low branch. Mattie turned off the engine.
“I love it here, Mattie.”
“I know. I do, too.” He reached across her lap to open her door. “Stay right there, birthday girl.” He climbed out his side of the truck and walked around front. She watched him pass through the headlights and come to her side. He held out his hand. “May I help you into the back of the truck?”
“Mattie Miller, what are you planning?”
“Please.” His hand was big and warm, and his thumb pressed gently into the back of hers as he grasped her fingers. After Mattie lowered the red tailgate, he lifted her at her waist while she pushed herself up with her arms, hopping backward onto it.
“I’ll be right back.”
“What in the world are you up to?” She heard him fumbling in the darkness of the truck’s cabin, the headlights went off and the music began to play. Mattie left the driver-side door open and Isabelle felt the truck rock slightly as he pulled himself up onto the tire and then onto the weathered wooden boards of the flatbed. In the dark, she made out his silhouette as he moved toward her.
“May I?” He took her hand and slid his arm around her waist and began to sway.
“Mattie, you can’t dance.”
“I can when I’m inspired.” He pulled her closer and held her hand against his chest, touching his cheek to hers. She drew a long, deep breath to smell the sweetness of his neck. His skin felt damp and smooth. As the music from the cabin of the truck blended with the chorus of wood frogs, Isabelle felt Mattie’s body sway. Blowing the stray hair that curled around her ear, he whispered, “I love you, Belle.”
“Izzy, do you want me to plug in the lamp next to you or keep it on my side?”
“I’d like to read a bit, can I have it?”
Brian had already plugged it into the outlet behind the small, white nightstand on his side of the double bed. Saying nothing, he yanked the black, cloth-covered cord and dragged it by the lamp’s base over to the other side and plugged it in. Isabelle pulled up a fresh pair of underwear under her nightgown, grabbed her book and glasses, and crawled under the frayed sheet.
“Are you kinda done with the whole sex thing, Izzy?”
Isabelle had sensed that this question was looming and was sorry that it came now.
“No.” She looked over the top of her glasses and saw that he had pulled out his iPad and was already scrolling. She scrunched farther down under the sheet and began to read.
Still awake several hours later, Isabelle heard the wind pick up, and branches from the pine growing close to the house scraped against her window. A wind chime that her grandmother had hung from the balcony made the night feel lonely and near. Brian was snoring. Isabelle tugged the crocheted quilt of black and green and red yarn up from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around her head. She never remembered feeling cold at the cabin until now. She used to wonder what the lake must be like after Labor Day, what Mattie did in the days when the shadows of the pines stretched long across the water and the chilled air smelled of earth and decaying leaves. She tried to imagine snowflakes disappearing as they touched the water’s surface with layers of ice forming along the shoreline and around the dock pilings. She pictured cabins closed up tight with their docks barren; all the deck chairs and umbrellas stored away in the sheds. She thought of Mattie alone sitting on the deck next door, bundled in a sweater and turtleneck listening to the geese fly overhead, watching the stars and planets rotate in the winter sky. A fire of pine branches and birch faggots popping and spitting from the stone fireplace that his father had built. His mother in the kitchen making something warm like stew or chili; all the foods that Isabelle never ate at the lake. The Miller’s cabin would be alive with a glow from each window, set alone in the darkness of the winter. And now, as the northern wind plucked the haunting chimes and the scratch of the pine branches kept time against her window, Brian lay next to her, and she was cold.
The next morning, Isabelle dumped the remains of the half & half down the drain and put the carton in the trash. “Should we bring the eggs home?” she asked.
“Nah, pitch ’em. Let’s pitch everything.”
“I’m going to the lake one more time, then I’m ready to leave.”
As she walked down the dock, Isabelle spotted the silhouette on the lake; it moved slowly toward her. The sun left black dots on the inside of her eyelids each time she blinked, but she saw the rower more clearly than ever before. He wore a blue life preserver, giving him oversized shoulders and arms that looked like sticks. As he maneuvered the oars, he turned the boat so that it glided perpendicular to the edge of her dock, and she watched him slide past her to the dock next door. He wore a red baseball cap that shadowed his face. White curls looped up around the back of the cap, and his tan neck was slightly burned. After he tied the weathered rope in figure eights around the horn cleat, he secured the oars inside the boat. With ease, he pulled himself up on the dock and unzipped his life vest. Throwing his arm up into the air, he waved to Isabelle with a smile; a wide gap split his two front teeth. A boy. She waved back without saying hello and watched him run up the gray, weathered planks to the cabin.
A rush of embarrassment rose from her chest to her throat. It strangled her as she let out a choked cough. A small boy. She stared at the dinghy as it bumped softly against the rubber pads on the edge of the dock, water lapping at its sides. She felt something release from her core, her muscles relaxed, and she nodded toward the lake and its gray quietness. The water was empty of sails. Hovering over the far side of the lake, a bank of clouds roiled and the tops of the pines swayed like wheat. She felt a slow rhythmic bounce of the dock making her turn as she pressed the straw hat firmly on the crown of her head. For a moment, she imagined a tall, white-haired boy with a curious smile loping toward her with his arms swinging, his eyes squinting against the sky painlessly.
“Are you ready?” Brian wore his pressed khakis, leather dress shoes, and sunglasses.
She steadied her voice, “I just saw a little boy that’s staying next door. I think he’s the one I keep seeing on the lake.”
Brian’s face showed no sense of recognition. He zipped up his jacket against the breeze, and it seemed to Isabelle that he was looking at the water for the first time.
“It looks different today,” he said.
A sudden gust of wind blew the straw hat off Isabelle’s head and into the lake. Lightly, it floated with its red ribbon trailing and sinking down into the water.
“Oh, no.” She fell to her knees and reached out to grab it, but the shallow waves licked the hat away. She stretched farther out over the water.
“Isabelle, let it go.”
“I love that hat.”
“It’s old. I’ll get you a new one.”
Isabelle leaned back on her heels, pressing her palms into her thighs as she watched the hat drift under the dock next door and catch in the stiff stalks of cattails growing out of the murky water along the shore. “Would you like to stop on the way home to pick up some new lamps? We can pick them out together, and you can look for a new hat.”
Isabelle remained kneeling, squinting away the brightness. “I don’t really need them.”
Featured image: Shutterstock
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