We stand on the ferry’s top observation deck, I with my binoculars, elbows on the rail, trying to spot Camp Island—the bluff, the dock, the raft—and Rose leaning into the battering wind with closed eyes, savoring some private thought. It is overcast, blue-gray, the air heavy with water and the water all shot through with air: murky, carbonated. The bow of the ferry parts the waters of Lake Champlain, spray rising in arcs that gleam in some sourceless light. Mallory sits a few feet behind us, in one of a row of yellow bucket chairs bolted to the deck; Mallory, this year, has grown fearful of the lake.
A few months ago, we saw a documentary piece on Champ, part of a low-budget sea monster show on PBS. We converged in the living room, feeling defensive of our lake, our monster, our private August world. The camera panned across sepia-toned photographs of the steamboat from which Champ was sighted in 1870, portraits of distinguished believers pointing to their graphite renderings of the serpent. Mallory’s fingers tightened on the arms of her chair as she watched a computer-generated Champ dive and surface, as a blonde actress standing waist-deep in the lake shrieked and snapped the iconic Champ photograph: a humped back and a slender brachiosaur neck rising from the dark water.
I, too, was once a child in Lake Champlain, and I know as well as anyone that the water is thick with perils: clammy fingers of lake weed to graze a swimmer’s stomach, caves in which lurk poisonous spiny things, living reef, some say, sharp enough to slice through bone. And there is Champ, curled sleeping, scaly and fanged, with eyes of bloodiest red, in some prehistoric cavern a mile below the tiny knifing glimmers of a child’s body on the surface of the water.
In the documentary, there was an interview with a local man in a mesh baseball cap who spent all his free time out at Button Bay with a telescope, a camera, and a thermos of coffee, waiting for Champ. Mallory worried for this man, so close to the water, unarmed. Rose muttered, half absorbed by an algebra problem set, “What a maniac,” and Mallory took this as a christening, referring to the Maniac often, and with love.
Mallory is nine. She delights in daylight thoughts that will wreck her in the night: monsters in the lake, creatures in the closet, the secret lives of dolls. She brings up the Maniac at odd moments, sometimes as I fix her breakfast cereal, or pensively, as she climbs into the car after swim practice, having waited too long with her thoughts on the concrete steps of the YMCA: “I hope the Maniac is doing okay.”
We watch our island grow from a dark landmass into something civilized: houses, roads, the ferry’s shore crew, young men in red uniform t-shirts, waiting to hitch the ferry to the dock. We regroup in the car and sing as we roll the last mile to Champlain Camp, loopy from the ferry’s lurch, the rush of the highway, all these annual adjustments of space and footing.
I carry Mallory piggyback down the hill from the parking lot, a tradition begun by her father; I can’t bear to tell her she’s getting too heavy. I can feel it in her legs wrapped around my stomach, a certain cellular quiver, her body’s will to expand. Her father was my second husband. He cheated on us, and though we divorced four years ago, I still feel some pride in my ability to do his job as well as mine.
Rose is already gone among the trees, calling the names of her old friends. I suspect she is looking for the teenaged bugler—the lean, freckled boy who plays the bugle calls that summon us to meals and send us to sleep. I will see her rarely this week, I know. Last year, she gained access to the private world of the teen staffers, of which I caught glimpses only: a whispering huddle on a blanket down by the rocks, a small fire, the peachy flash of bodies in the night lake vanishing under the pale sweep of my flashlight beam, as I picked my way back to my tent from the outhouse, fearful of skunks. She will turn sixteen this Friday, and I have already spoken with the kitchen staff about a cake.
“We’re here!” Mallory yells, sliding down my back. We survey the croquet courts, the double-seater swing, and beyond, veiled by trees, the knotty-pine dining hall down on the bluff. The lake, sunlit to a shocking white, is visible through the conifers like a blank space, the drop-off at the edge of the world.
We have all stopped trying to explain this place to outsiders; it is impossible to communicate the luxury of suspension, this dizzy stepping-outside kind of feeling. Champlain Camp is for families, not just for children—at home, my friends ask if I wouldn’t rather vacation in style, eat well, go dancing. They don’t understand; I’ve moved from state to state, from house to house, but camp has always been my home. The island is small and there are no strangers. We let our children run free; where could they go?
I turn back to fetch our things from the car. We have plastic-weave lawn chairs and duffel bags full of gas lanterns and DEET. I brought four books, and Rose packed two kinds of perfume, though I warned her she’ll get twice the bug bites. Inside Mallory’s backpack are paper and pastels, embroidery thread for friendship bracelets, and the penknife I finally caved in and bought her for Christmas last year. She intends to carve a magic wand, but she has not yet found a suitable stick.
I promised Rose I would keep score for her first-tier tournament game of shuffleboard and I am on time, sitting in a rain-darkened Adirondack chair next to the scoreboard, green and black pop can tabs lined up on a wire for sliding, like abacus beads, to keep track of the round. Rose and her friend Dana aren’t here yet, but their opponents, Roy and Penny, leathery-tan people in their late sixties, stand ready at one end of the court, silver shuffleboard cues planted by their sides. Roy leans toward me, balancing gamely on one foot, and calls out, “Think she’s coming?”
“She wouldn’t miss it. She forgot her watch though.”
Roy and Penny are fourth generation Champlain campers; I am only third. My mother didn’t want to come this year, without my father, and she is at a spa instead. She’d rather be somewhere where she doesn’t have to remember Dad; I’d rather be somewhere where I do. My dad was a kid when he first came to camp, and now our family name carries enough weight to get me and the girls a lakeside tent. Roy and Penny’s grown kids have stopped coming to camp, which I find sad, like the extinction of a species.
Roy sits down across from me while Penny stands at the ready, sighting down her cue, practicing a two-step push. He plants his elbows on his knees, worrying his large, blue-veined hands. “Sharon,” he says. “I was real sorry to hear about your dad’s passing.”
I nod acknowledgement. I think of Dad last year, dozing in that very chair, the deep sunburned etch of his forehead.
“You’re a writer, aren’t you?”
“I’m a technical writer,” I tell him. “I quit journalism in my twenties.” For the past fifteen years, I’ve made a living at this—writing instruction booklets and reviews of luxury appliances: bubbling foot spas, digital infant thermometers.
“It’s a great thing, knowing how to put your thoughts down on paper,” says Roy. He leans forward, beckoning, as if I should rise from my chair and crouch by his. “I’ve got a story for you. You remember my daughter Sandy?”
I remember Sandy. She’s ten years younger than I am. Chinese, adopted, complexion like a piano: ivory and ebony. She modeled at one time, I recall, and she never lost that haggard, floating look. She hasn’t come to camp in years. “How is she?”
Roy watches me intently. “Well,” he says, “She’s not good, Sharon. She’s not good.” The wind lifts cold off the lake and I jiggle my legs to stay warm. I wish Rose would get here.
“Sorry to hear that,” I say, and Roy nods deeply several times in what looks like confirmation that I am, as he suspected, a sympathetic person.
“First she disappears for three months without a word to her husband and kids. We all thought she’d been killed or something. And then a lawyer comes to my door with a notice of claim. Child abuse. Shows up to my son-in-law with divorce papers. He never drank, never cheated, never gave her cause. What kind of woman,” says Roy. I look around to make sure nobody is listening in, though why I should be embarrassed, I don’t know.
“It turns out she’s been doing this childhood regression hypnotherapy thing you hear about. You raise a child eighteen years and send her off with money, education, you don’t expect something like this. People won’t take my phone calls, Penny had to take a semester off teaching.” Roy’s pace quickens. “She’s marrying the hypnotherapist, Sharon. What does that tell you.”
“Roy,” I say, and I can hear the sharpness in my own voice. “I don’t write stories anymore.”
“But you could, though,” he says.
I stand up, shading my eyes, as Rose and Dana appear, sprinting up the gravel path from the tent line, flushed, laughing. I never see Rose look so happy at home as she looks right now, with her old friend, running up the same paths where I taught her, once, how to walk.
“Round one,” I call out, trying to shake off Roy’s strange attack. Roy ambles down to his end of the court, taking off his fishing hat to bow to my daughter.
“Ladies,” he says, and the game begins.
I wade out to the raft, holding a paperback above my head in a knotted plastic bag. Past the rickety dock, a hundred yards out on the lake, the raft is anchored to the shore by two muscular ropes at a ninety-degree angle, the boundaries of the safe-swim area. I climb the algae-carpeted steps and lie on my back on the lashed boards, dark water stains spreading out from my shoulders, my calves, my bottom. Since I had Mallory, my body has lost its tightness. I spread, I settle. Sometimes Mallory plays with the loose skin of my elbows, pinching it into shapes, which, to her delight, hold. The pines at the top of the bluff obscure all but a few of the lakeside tents but I can see ours, the canvas flaps snapping with wind.
I see Roy descending from camp to the rocky beach, trailing four kids in neon green inflatable life jackets. Roy has a motorboat, and we often hear the chainsaw roar of his engine and the shrieks of all the kids, year after year, as he teaches them to water ski. He has always seemed gentle. Roy’s laugh on the wind is a throaty baritone, episodic, like a cough. Napping sailors grumble from their cots, appalled to imagine their own Champlain Camp as a place also home to this noisy breed of motorboater—where’s the art in that, they ask at dinner, passing bowls of tuna casserole. Where’s the joy in flicking on a motor and drowning out the wind, forcing yourself on the lake rather than partnering with it?
The kids pick their way along the shore, wincing over the sharp rocks. Roy pushes his boat off the skids and hoists each kid in by the armpits. A pair of dragonflies lands on my hip, twitching and hovering. The air out on the lake permits only certain sounds to carry. Over the lonely hush of the wind, I can make out the slap of waves against the keels of moored sailboats, and every so often, a voice carried down from the bluff on a freak air current, as loud as if spoken from inside my own head. I watch Roy motor away, the kids leaning over to trail their hands in the water, a roar receding to the horizon.
I imagine how it must have been. Sandy lying on a leather couch—no, something more modern, a papasan chair in a room with geometric-design curtains and framed diagrams of the human heart. Her eyes closed, a man’s voice asking her what else she remembers, what else. Sandy as a girl. I do remember her: shy, willowy, cheating at cards. I construct Sandy’s accusations: once in the car, behind the roller rink, sometimes in her bedroom when her mother was out, weekly in the shower. She can’t remember every detail, but she has a sense: Roy’s knotty knees pinioning her thighs, splayed, the strain in his clammy neck, the pulsing of an artery. Hips unable to twist right or left, wrists cuffed by his heavy hands, the slug-juice stuff left on her skin. The taste of it.
I see the husband watching through a glass door as their children build a bucket castle in a sandbox, trying to keep his voice level: “Are you coming home?”
“The mind,” says Sandy, a thin voice, particles of sound in a machine cupped over her husband’s pink ear, “is a black hole.” I see the hypnotherapist waking next to her and sitting up in bed, a man with gray hair dyed brown, a jogger.
It rains. Campers dart from tent to tent in heavy slickers, huddle in twos and threes under umbrellas as they move between the game room and the outhouse, the tent line and the auditorium. Rose begs a driving lesson in the morning; we muddy the undercarriage of our station wagon on the old country roads, potholes like bowls of thin soup. I describe to her the dangers of hydroplaning, how to turn into a skid. When I ask her how the week is going, she shifts from first to second.
“Like that?” she asks, and we buckle forward, gain some speed.
“Nice kids on staff this year?” I ask, and immediately regret the word “kids.” She blanches, checks the rearview.
We pretend the parking lot is a city street, and parallel park on the grass. The teenaged bugler is trimming the hedge in a yellow slicker. I lower the umbrella to pass under the arch and ask Rose if she tied the back tent flaps. I turn and find myself alone. Rose is walking down a path into the woods with the teenaged bugler, who holds his slicker tented above them. Rose’s arm rests around his hips, too low, too familiar.
I sit on the wooden steps of my tent, reading and sipping a bottled iced tea from the camp store. Roy walks up the path in a wide-brimmed straw hat, greeting everyone he sees. He is excited to find me alone, and sits without permission.
“Do you have a notebook?” he asks. “Shouldn’t you be writing this stuff down?”
Roy says that he and Penny adopted Sandy when she was a year old, and he sometimes wondered, as she grew up, if she remembered anything from that first year in the girls’ orphanage, in the sprawl of a city Roy can no longer pronounce, something that sounds like, but is not, Chengdu. When Sandy hit another child with a wooden block, he imagined a stern Chinese matron leaning over her crib with a birch switch. I know I shouldn’t go on listening to this, but I do. Something has captured my attention—Sandy in the shower, the hypnotherapist waking in bed.
He asks me how I discipline my girls, and I tell him about our cardboard chore wheel, the suspension of dessert privileges, the Time Out Chair in the corner of the dining room. He rests his head on one hand and says that maybe he raised her wrong, but hell, he didn’t know how else to do it, and his other kids came out okay. Didn’t she have a bike on her birthday? Didn’t she have a ride to tennis practice and a hot meal waiting afterwards? Didn’t she get to come to camp every August to associate with you fine people?
Something heavy lands on my neck and I gasp instinctively before I see Mallory’s hands clasped in front of me, feel her chin on the crown of my head. She jumps down from the tent platform and I gather her in my lap, trying to smile reassuringly; she looks startled, herself.
Roy beams at Mallory and slowly rises, stretching his great bear limbs. “What have you been up to this morning, little miss?” he asks her.
Mallory reveals a thick, foot-long branch, the bark partially cut away to show tens of pale facets running parallel, combining, diverging. “I found a wand stick,” she says.
“What kind of spells are you going to cast?”
Mallory looks at me but I can’t help because I have never asked her this question. I thought of the wand as an end in itself. “It’s not for me.” She squints gravely up at Roy. “It’s for the Maniac, in case Champ comes. So he can kill him.”
Mallory sits between my legs on our faded blue terry beach towel, pulping sunscreen between her fingers, as Rose and Dana dare each other: go in further, no you go! I feel sharp rocks beneath the towel, and shift. “Count of three,” says Dana, the lake lapping at the small of her back. Dana and Rose are both wearing their bikinis; I bought Rose’s for her at Marshall’s, marked down, and it seemed reasonable in the dressing room, the old lady attendant nodding approvingly. Now I am questioning the choice: chocolate brown with floppy ties at my daughter’s pale hips and at the halter, the bust joined at the center by a metal circle, a bull’s eye.
“Three!” Dana submerges and comes up streaming, lake weed plastered to her shoulder. Rose waits, containing her laughter, for Dana to see that she hasn’t gone under, but seems to lose her footing and sputters under herself, resurfacing in the arms of the teenaged bugler. “I so got you,” he hoots. His bicep presses against Rose’s back, glistening wet, and beneath that, I can see the lean profile of his abdomen, trembling with the exertion of holding Rose above water level.
Mallory refuses to enter the lake today, though she swam yesterday, and we have tried the inch-by-inch submersion routine: the big toe, the foot, the other foot, the ankles, the calves, the knees. She takes my hand and leads me back to the rocks, saying gravely, “No. Champ is near today. I can feel him in my foot bones.” So we sit on the towel and listen to the splashes and screams, other families holding their arms out to toddlers in arm-swimmies, old women bobbing in the shallows on floatable foam noodles, the teenaged bugler out deeper now, carrying Rose around like a baby, her toes visible above the water. I rummage in my swim bag for the Champ story. We co-authored this last year, on camp stationery, and we stapled it into a little book. It is called “Mallory and the Monster.”
“Mallory was a beautiful, talented little girl who could fly and was also a professional ballet dancer and soccer goalie.” Mallory throws her head back against my chest to look at me upside-down.
“That’s not how it goes. Read it how it goes.” The story goes that Champ surfaced and slithered through Champlain Camp, terrifying the campers, until brave Mallory held out a hand to pet him and discovered that he was a good monster after all, sweet as a puppy. She climbed on his back and he gave her rides all over the lake. Mallory studies the crayon illustrations she did last year, unconvinced.
“Do you think the Maniac is scared?” Mallory asks me.
I tell her that the Maniac wouldn’t spend his whole life trying to see something he is scared of, and we start again: the big toe, the foot, the other foot, the ankles, the calves, the knees.
I nap in a hammock beneath a spreading beech whose farthest branches drop leaves into the shallows of Lake Champlain to settle among thousands of zebra clams, a plague of parasites. I nap and I am carried on warm dream currents into day-lit horrors. Roy is there, in the car behind the roller rink, in a pink bedroom, stealing into the running shower where Sandy turns, a peachy flash. I see the Dutch flower pattern in the center of my own bed obliterated by Roy’s heaving nakedness, Sandy flaccid beneath him, and then Roy is my ex-husband, working his pale, hairy thighs, and then Sandy is Rose, and my ex-husband turns back to Roy, who twists to leer at me, my daughter’s fingers curled over his mottled red shoulders, and says, “Think she’s coming?”
And in the dream I hear myself say, “She wouldn’t miss it. She forgot her watch, though.”
Thursday evening, looking for a dropped earring, I find a six-pack of beer under Rose’s cot. I walk past the staff tents, pausing to listen to voices and to peer through lantern-lit gaps in the canvas. I find Dana’s mother, Joan—she has no doubt that Dana intends to partake in any planned beer-drinking, and shakes her head in a practiced way.
“What the hell,” says Joan, and rummages in her vanity for a church key. We ice our daughters’ beer in a cooler and then drink it, talking softly on the deck of Joan’s tent, watching the brimstone sunset and the color vanishing upward from the evening world, like a relieved suction cup. We tell stories, too, Joan and I, of her marriage, my divorces, her teaching, and our daughters, growing up in an indeterminate wireless world.
We wait for the teenaged bugler and his cohort at the top of the path, by the auditorium. We are made bold by our talk, and when the gaggle of staffers arrives, we grab our daughters and march them back to our tents. I realize I am tipsy as the bugler plays taps and the tents, one by one, cease to glow, lanterns extinguished. I hope that Rose can’t tell. She’ll be grounded, I tell her, for a week. We both know this week can’t start until we are back home, back in the clutches of orderly life. Feeling hazy, wishing there were someone else to enforce my rules, I consider the bugle call; without it, would the campers go to sleep? Without it, would night fall at all?
I return from the ladies’ after-breakfast walk; on winding dirt roads, sunsoaked and surrounded by reedy bays full of white birds, by grazing cows and tall metal silos, we step down into the Queen Anne’s Lace whenever a truck rattles by. We part at the top of the camp road, and I head for the double-seater swing, where I left Mallory reading a picture book to two little boys. The swing is empty, and it’s not until I reach the bluff and see the crowd at my own tent that I realize something is wrong.
I run. There is Mallory sitting on her cot, the tent flaps thrown back, and Roy stands next to her, holding her hand up in the air. Penny is there, and so is the family from the next tent over: two architects and their brood. As I close in, I see that Mallory is tear-stained, shuddering her breaths, and that her hand is wrapped in white cloth, flowering red.
“Mallory!” I call.
“Little miss had an accident,” says Roy as I gather Mallory to my chest. She folds against me and cries into my sweatshirt a little. Roy’s grasp on her hand is too strong, I think, and he reads my expression.
“Stops the bleeding,” he says. The architects move away and Roy peels the bloodied cloth back from my daughter’s fingers. She has sliced the inside of her left index finger, a long, straight cut, the edges of the parted skin doughy and white.
“It’s not deep,” says Roy. “She’ll be okay.” He hands me the bloody cloth, and I see that it is his monogrammed handkerchief, expensive. “Keep the pressure on,” he tells me, as if I myself am not a parent, as if I have never stanched a bleeding wound.
He walks off, raising a hand in greeting to someone on the path. I spot Mallory’s wand on the tent steps, bearing an orange smudge, the dime-sized whorl of her thumb. She has shaved the bark to a sort of hilt, and into this she has scratched lopsided stars and triangles.
“You’re okay,” I tell her over and over. She won’t speak for twenty minutes, and then she asks me if she gets to keep the knife.
After dinner, browsing through the camp library, fingering the dusty boxes of postcards and the old crime novels, ancient wildflowers pressed between their pages, I come across a picture of my dad. Here, he is a toothy ten year old in a sailor suit lounging in a hammock, a scrawl on the photo’s margin reading, “Rest for the weary, 1948.” It looks like the same hammock where I have recently slept, though logic tells me it must have been replaced. I feel for a moment as if I could wander back down the tentline and find him there, and shake him awake.
Mallory wakes up infused with purpose. Though she wishes Rose a happy birthday, it’s clear that she has something else in mind. She reveals her plan at breakfast. “Can we go meet the Maniac today?” She extracts from her pocket a tiny, linty square of paper, unfolding it with care and smoothing it against the table’s edge: a Google maps printout—the route to Button Bay. The other families at our long table are impressed with her planning and charmed by her seriousness, and I too, am impressed. I am eager to leave camp for an hour or two, to diffuse my flights of fancy: Roy behind the roller rink, Rose in the shower, Sandy’s mind like a basement fuse box left open to tampering, reprogramming, the flicking of switches, a man’s hand heavy on a child’s leg.
So, we go to meet the Maniac. Mallory mapped a route skirting the lake, and we pass marina after marina as we fly south, windows down. Rose decides to come along, which I take as a touching moment of sibling solidarity, though she is sullen in the backseat, listening to her iPod. We have done everything we could to give her a nice birthday—I woke up extra early and drove to an orchard to buy her hot, fresh cider donuts, and she’s spoken to her father on the phone, shouted “No shit!” when he told her that she was going to have the old Saab. Mallory spent hours yesterday making Rose a necklace out of fossilized stones from the rocky beach: scallop shapes, nautilus, strange curling things.
Mallory is edgy, chattering nonstop about Champ: sightings, origins, opinions she has gathered from campers all week. Champ is an illusion created by standing waves; Champ is a whole species, plesiosaur survivors from the Mesozoic period; Champ is nothing more than an ancient log, loosed from the mud by changes in pressure and geology.
“You didn’t have to come with us, birthday girl,” I remind Rose. She lifts an earphone and lets it snap back, watches the lake.
Mallory is rubbing her palms back and forth, twirling her wand, her bandaged index finger held out stiff. “What if he doesn’t want it?”
Rose puts her hand through the space under the headrest and rakes her fingers through Mallory’s silky hair. “He’d be crazy.”
We enter Button Bay State Park. Button Bay is a shallow basin full of feeding bass, popular with fishermen—it is a frenzy of boats compared to the unnamed waters below our camp bluff. We drive until Mallory sees the right trees, the right dock, the right signal tower: the Maniac’s lookout point. We spot him sitting on the bed of his rust-colored truck, eating out of a red-checkered carton. I pull into a gravel lot at the side of the road, and I haven’t even put the car in park when Mallory is out, sprinting toward him, her brown hair whipping side to side, one hand holding up her jeans because she has refused the discomfort of a belt.
I call out to her to wait and she doesn’t, so I run. I am always running after her, I think. Mallory gets to the Maniac before I do and she says something I can’t hear. He is looking at her. He’s slight of build, wearing a blue puffy vest and that same green mesh cap he wore on the sea monster show. Mallory holds out the wand, and the Maniac’s shoulders spasm once—a laugh or a shiver. He jumps down from the truck and reaches toward her.
For a moment I am terrified. The Maniac hasn’t seen me yet; he is aware only of a little girl holding out a stick. Mallory’s upturned face is radiant, expectant, and this kills me. I am forced to imagine the worst: he laughs at her, he hits her, he caresses her. We should never have left camp—I want to stop time so that Mallory can always look at a person with that face, expecting goodness. The Maniac takes the wand from Mallory and holds it up, turns it over in his hand.
“Aren’t you a sweetheart,” I hear him say as I reach Mallory. I put my hands on Mallory’s shoulders and try to catch my breath. So the Maniac is kind. Some day there will be an unkind Maniac. It’s all I can do to act calm.
“It will protect you,” says Mallory.
The Maniac is about forty-five, with a patchy auburn beard. He doesn’t acknowledge me at all, but looks at Mallory, a fierce brightness to his eyes. “So, you want to see the monster, huh?”
Mallory takes a step forward, out of my grasp. “No. You want to see him.”
The Maniac takes his cap off, runs his hand through his thinning hair, and puts it back on, scanning the lake. “I seen Champ,” he says, after a while. “A couple times. I seen her twice in the bay here, and once way out on the lake. I just didn’t get a photo. They don’t believe you without a photo.” He looks at me now, pleadingly. “Even if you have a photo, they’re going to think it’s computer-generated.”
A few men are puttering with their boats at the dock nearby. Mallory breathes, “I believe you.” The Maniac looks at her tenderly, and I think that this might be as close as he will get to what he wants. I become aware that Rose is behind me, watching her sister. She is smiling, respectful. I wonder if she had a moment like this, if I missed it. We stand a while with the Maniac, watching the water for a sighting: his heart’s desire, something comprehensible rising from the mythic depths.
At dinner, the whole kitchen staff files out and starts the dining hall singing happy birthday to Rose. The cake is chocolate chocolate chip, and has “sweet sixteen” written on it in pink frosting cursive. Rose stands up and takes a bow, and after dinner she’s gone. I lie awake for hours past taps, my back aching, insomniac. I think of Sandy. Roy told me earlier, waiting to bat at the all-camp softball game, about implanted memories—children who make accusations of satanic ritual abuse, human sacrifice, incestuous orgies. I told him again that I don’t write this kind of story, but I lie awake now, my mind crowded with uninvited horrors. Rose steals into the tent through the back just before dawn, and I hear her undress, lay her earrings on the vanity, slide into her cot.
After ham-and-eggs breakfast, the old people go to the chapel and pray in the dappled lake light, among trees planted to strengthen the bluff when they were young, by the old people they have come to replace. I have put tips in envelopes for the staffers who made our beds all week, and our duffel bags are packed. This is the goodbye period, when Mallory runs from beach to stable to game room to dining hall, staring extra hard, trying to impress upon her mind lasting visions of the places she loves. She is happy today. I saw her swimming with Rose and the teenaged bugler after breakfast, cannonballing from the dock.
Now I go for my last hour on the raft. On my way down to the beach, I see Rose in the auditorium with the staff kids, sitting in a circle, playing guitars, leaning on each other’s shoulders. The air is colder than the water today, and I shiver as I wade out, the breeze on my wet skin almost intolerably cold. The sailors and the motorboaters are all readying their boats for one last afternoon on the lake, and I watch again as Roy pushes his boat off the skids. He wanted to talk to me after breakfast and I walked away, finally.
He looks forlorn, even though I can hear the hack of his distant laughter and see that he is playing to an audience, one child this time, in a neon green life-jacket. I close my eyes and try to think myself warm. The raft moves lazily with the lake. Roy’s motor starts up, and I don’t have to open my eyes to see the sailors turn from their rigs to look daggers at him. But then I hear another sound, and I snap alert, crane to see—Mallory’s squeal: “A spider, a spider!” Squinting, I see my own daughter in the life-jacket, crouching next to Roy’s motor, as Roy buckets the spider out into the lake. The water skis are propped up in the boat, and Mallory is rubbing sunblock on her arms. I just lectured her on sunblock this morning; I am always surprised when she believes me.
I watch Roy and Mallory with a growing sense of dread. Their faces are inscrutable with distance, blank masks on which my wild mind can paint any expression. Mallory sees me and gestures to Roy—they both turn and wave as they head out for the deep water. I leap to my feet and yell, “Mallory! You may not go! You. May. Not. Go,” but they keep on waving and smiling. The motor is too loud. I wave my arms over my head and tap my wrist where a watch should be. Roy cups his hand around his ear, but he doesn’t cut the motor, and Mallory is farther and farther away from me. I see Roy’s hand on Mallory’s bare shoulder and bells go off in my head, a million bells, and I don’t care anymore what is story and what is fact, I just want my daughter back.
Some of the sailors have noticed my frantic gestures, and they call out to me, “Everything okay?” I try to call back but like Roy, they can’t hear me, and I realize I’m downwind of all the boats; the wind is blowing from the lake to the land. This is why the sailors are waiting, while the motorboaters muscle out onto the water. Mallory is a green dot now, and soon she will disappear. I am at the mercy of the lake and the wind. I dive from the raft into the cold water and I open my eyes under the surface of the lake, the water alive with bubbles. Here is a new kind of suspension, a weightless, breath-holding feat, as I wait for my daughters to return to me. I look hard into the dark reaches of the lake to prove to myself there is nothing lurking there, nothing more than a few old logs, loosed from the mud by changes in pressure and geology.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Sarah Cornwell grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Missouri Review, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the 2008 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize, and finalist honors for the Keene Prize for Literature. In 2010, her screenwriting was recognized with the Humanities Student Drama Fellowship. She is the author of the novel, WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU (Harper Collins).