I used to skip stones across the water. Not just any stones would work. They had to be the flat kind, big and round. There was a long dock that jutted out from the shore and into the lake and my sister Tess and my cousins and I would stand on the dock, with stones in our hands, and throw. The stones would skim across the water, hopping lightly, like rabbits. The record was five hops before the stone sunk. When we got bored with that we went swimming in the lake to cool off until our bodies turned into wrinkled old prunes and we had to lie in the sun to plump back out.
Every year in July my cousins and aunts and uncles met us at Lake Hope in New Hampshire for a big sprawling family get together. We took up three or four cabins, all side by side on a sandy beach that led to the lake. When the sun went down, my father built a big campfire with the stray branches we’d collected throughout the day. Bundled up in sweatshirts, long socks, and jeans, we sat close to the fire so the mosquitoes wouldn’t nibble our skin. After the rowdiness and chaos of the day, a hush would fall on us as the flames licked the branches and hypnotized our thoughts.
This year, everything was different. My parents wanted a week with just me and Tess before my cousins, aunts, and uncles arrived. They wanted some family time, or so they said, but they sure didn’t act very happy about it. I mean, they tried to smile and laugh and act all normal, but they could barely keep from arguing. They’d been like that for months. The smallest things set them off. Last week, my father made a giant turkey sandwich and left the mayo out on the counter. It sat there all afternoon, and when my mother got home and found it sitting there all warm in a puddle of condensation, she set to banging things around in the kitchen and glaring. And god forbid if my mother took too long in the shower, my father would never let her forget it. He’d mutter under his breath about wasting water, the electric bill, and good sense. We had the cabin for two weeks, and by the third day, I knew I had to make myself as scarce as possible for the rest of the trip. I pulled on my brand new black bikini and jean shorts, grabbed a beach towel and sunglasses and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” my mom called to me from the kitchen.
“The beach,” I yelled, banging through the screen door before she could answer.
“Wait, Grace, I wanna come!” Tess came flying down the stairs and out the door behind me, wearing nothing but her pink bubblegum bathing suit and purple, sparkly fairy wings, fluttering behind her. Since she turned seven last month, she’d worn the wings everywhere, which was usually to follow me around.
“Sorry, squirt, I’m swimming out to the dock and your short legs won’t make it,” I said, sliding my sunglasses onto my nose.
Her chin trembled, and she turned her small, round face up to mine, her eyes shining with disappointment.
“Tell you what, after dinner I’ll take you down to the old white dock and you can practice your cannonball.”
Her face scrunched up as she weighed the options. “Deal,” she said, sticking out her hand to shake.
I rolled my eyes behind my sunglasses, but gave her hand a quick shake before I turned away and flip-flopped down the beach to my favorite spot. A small secluded area surrounded by birch trees, nearly hidden from the rest of the beach, had become my haven.
Long droopy branches hung over the sandy area, tucked away, a few feet from the shore. I lay my towel down long ways and straight, facing the lake, kicked off my flip-flops and wiggled out of my shorts. About a hundred feet into the water bobbed a square floating dock with no sides, only a small ladder that hung into the water. It was anchored in place, so it couldn’t just drift out into the middle of the lake, and this year, for the first time, I was a strong enough swimmer to swim out to it.
I put my feet in the water, walking slowly, letting the water get higher and higher on my body. It felt cold this morning. I rubbed the goose bumps on my arms. The final plunge going from my waist to my shoulders always felt the coldest. I envied the people who could just plunge right in and get it over with. Finally, I dived under and yelped from the cold, shivering and giddy, and then swam smoothly as I adjusted to the temperature. I reached the ladder and climbed up onto the floating dock. My wet feet left footprints on the dull blue wood and I sat in the middle, legs crossed, and leaned back on my hands. The sun shone bright today and its light covered the whole dock and warmed my skin. I turned my face toward the sun, my wet hair dripping softly behind me.
I knew why my parents had brought us here for family time. They were getting a divorce. They hadn’t said anything yet, but I wasn’t stupid; the signs were there. When I came down for a glass of water in the middle of the night my dad lay sprawled out on the couch, his mouth wide open, snoring softly. They fought all the time. Not the kind of fights that people felt okay about after. Angry, sinister, snide comments made in hatred. The only good thing was that Tess didn’t seem to know. Better to tell her all at once and get it over with. Sometimes it was less painful to rip the bandage off the cut rather than slowly peeling it away. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in mid-peel.
Six months ago, my father decided to quit his job as a lawyer and write the great American novel, which was probably why he walked around all the time with a pinched look on his face. I tried to tell him Judy Blume had already written it twenty years ago, so why bother, but he only glared at me. Things had been tense between my parents ever since.
Lying on my stomach, I rested my chin on the edge of the dock and watched the water. Every once in a while a snapping turtle poked his head out of the water before diving back down. I tried not to think of that while I swam, and how easy it would be for him to mistake one of my toes for a small fish.
I sighed and closed my eyes, letting the sun lull me into a half-sleep. I thought of my best friend Anna and wondered what she was up to. Probably hanging out at the mall, window shopping and eating salted pretzels while she stared at the boy who worked at the arcade. I wished I were there with her as I drifted between sleeping and waking. I wanted things to go back to the way they used to be.
Last winter, right after my fourteenth birthday, we had a terrible blizzard. The newscaster called it a real Nor’easter, with the snowfall coming down an inch an hour. It started on a Thursday night and by Friday morning the newscaster said not to leave the house. I could only think of one thing: Snow day.
After breakfast that morning, Tess ran circles around the house singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of her lungs. My dad, who wore a silly grin all morning, pretended to be a conductor, waving his arms around like a cartoon character, while my mom watched with a smile. Rolling my eyes, I put my hand on the banister to go upstairs to my room, the last sane place in the house.
“Grace, wait,” my dad said, laughing. “We’re all going out to build a snow family. Come with us.”
“We’re each gonna build ourself in the snow,” Tess shouted in excitement.
I wavered on the stairs. It might be fun to make myself in the snow, but listening to Tess sing Christmas songs in January would be too much.
“Come on, Grace,” my mom said with a smile. “You’re the artist, we need you.”
That did it. “Okay,” I said with a shrug. Winning second place in the school art competition did not make me an artist, but I did love to paint. Ms. Krumwich, my art teacher, called my art experimental. I liked that. While I painted I’d sometimes whisper it again and again like a mantra. Experimental, experimental, experimental.
Bundled up in our ski jackets and boots, we each built ourselves in the snow. I was carving my snow hair with my glove, making the lines with the tip of my finger, when something hard hit my back. A white, flattened snowball stuck flat to my coat. I looked around quick, but my parents and Tess concentrated on their own snow people. About to turn back to my snow self, I spotted the corner of my mother’s lips turn up into a smile and I knew it was her. Pretending to gather snow for my snow arms, I gathered up a ball of snow, bigger than a softball, and in one quick motion launched the ball into the air at my mother. The snowball hit the front of her coat. With a yell, she threw a ball back at me, and soon Tess and my father joined in as well, snowballs flying every where, whizzing by my head, seeping under my coat, and on my jeans.
“Peace, peace,” my dad yelled finally, laughing so hard he sank to his knees. Tess crept up behind him, a huge pile of snow in her arms, and dropped it on his head. White snow covered his whole upper body, but before Tess could run squealing away, my dad caught her in his arms. My mom and I looked at each other, grinning, and we each bent down for an armful of snow.
“Charge,” my mom yelled, and we ran, dumping our snow on both of them before we collapsed laughing next to them.
“I wish we could do this every day,” Tess said as snow dripped down her face.
“Me too,” I said.
My parents put their arms around us, and we all stared up at the sky, the soft snowflakes falling around us and sticking to our eyelashes.
“Grace, lunch,” Tess called out to me. I lifted my head up, staring across the lake, and saw her on the shore, hopping around, splashing in the water.
I slipped into the water and swam to shore. Grabbing my towel, I shook out the sand and we walked towards the cabin.
I trailed behind Tess as she skipped along singing, “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes…” When she got to the part about riding horses, she pretended to gallop along, her purple wings jouncing in the air. I made a mental note to teach her some less ancient songs. We had nearly reached the screen door of the cabin when my parents’ raised voices drifted out to us.
“What the hell, Peter, are you planning on helping out around here?” my mother yelled.
“What do you think I’m doing? The grill is warming up,” he snapped back. Tess faltered in her singing and galloping, and stopped a few feet from the open door.
“Let’s just get through this vacation and then we can tell the girls.”
“Tell them what?” my father asked. I could hear the sarcasm in his voice even from outside. “That we can’t stay in the same room without wanting to strangle each other?”
Tess and I stood still, her back to me and her wings no longer bouncing, but drooping down her back. My body and face flushed red with heat and anger. They couldn’t have just held it together for another week? I wanted to kick open the screen door and yell in their faces, but I could only stare at Tess’s back.
The screen door flung open and out walked my mother, looking down at the salad she held in front of her. She looked up and saw us there, and the rage on her face crumbled into a sheet of white shock as she looked from Tess to me. My dad came pushing out behind her, and he stood stunned.
Tess turned around and looked at me, her face wet and her hands balled into fists; pure devastation. She turned and ran back the way we came.
“Tess, wait,” my mom called after her.
They looked at me. I didn’t say anything, just dropped my towel on the ground near my feet and turned, following Tess. They should have known something like this would happen, but no, they were too busy fighting. I ran back through the sand, the sun now hot overhead, but didn’t see Tess anywhere. I searched the area where she liked to build sand castles in the afternoons for her dolls to live in, but no Tess. I pushed through the trees to my little haven searching behind the small boulders and branches where a little body could sit curled up, but she was nowhere there. I turned to go to the old white dock and check for her when something purple caught my eye. Underneath an old birch tree, right in front of the shore, were Tess’s purple fairy wings. Only five minutes had passed since the wings were on her back. I bent down and picked them up, dusting the sand off the tips, and stood there holding them. Slowly, I turned and looked out across the water to the floating dock.
“Oh, no,” I whispered.
I dropped the wings and ran into the water, plunging straight down, my eyes open and searching the water for a pink bathing suit. When my lungs felt like they were going to explode, I broke the surface, coughing, yelling, “Tess! Where are you?”
I dove again and again, looking for her. Three minutes. That’s how long a person can go without oxygen. It had been at least ten, but I pushed the thought away and I kept diving, looking for her. Several minutes later, I broke the surface close to the shore, gasping and coughing when a flash of pink caught my eye. I blinked, thinking I was seeing things, but it was still there. I swam closer and looked up, blinking the water out of my eyes. Up above me, in the old birch tree, sat Tess, clinging to a branch, her face still wet from tears as she stared down at me. I stood directly under her and the water came up nearly to my shoulders. Turning around, I threw up my entire breakfast in the water next to me.
“Grace,” Tess called down, “Are you sick?”
Not sure if I could talk, I nodded my head. I walked out of the water, my whole body shaking. It was quite possible I would never eat pancakes again.
“Tess,” I called up, “I thought you were…I thought…never mind.” I thought you were dead. But the words wouldn’t come. “Look, I know what you heard was bad, but why don’t you come down and we can talk about it.”
“No. I’m staying up here.” She had that stubborn sound in her voice. I squatted down in the sand, shivering, wishing I had brought a towel with me.
I heard voices and footsteps getting close and knew my parents had found us. They pushed through the branches and stepped into the clearing, their faces like grim masks as they caught my eye.
“Where’s Tess?” my mom asked.
“In the tree,” I said, pointing.
“Go away,” Tess yelled down. “Leave me alone.”
“She won’t come down,” I said, standing up. I felt so tired, my whole body shook and my teeth chattered together. “I thought she had gone into the water,” I whispered. “I thought she tried to reach the floating dock.”
My parents looked at me, taking in my dripping, wet body and shivering limbs, then at each other. For once, they didn’t look like they hated each other. My mother came over and put her arm around my shoulder, but I shrugged her off, backing away. I couldn’t do this now. If I let her hug me, I’d start bawling and then I’d never stop.
“Grace,” Tess called down, “I’m going to do a cannonball into the water.” She moved, ready to spring down.
“No, Tess wait,” I yelled, “the water is too shallow. You’ll hit your head, or worse.” No answer.
“Tess, come down here now,” my father said.
“Come down, honey, and we’ll talk,” my mother said.
“No, go away, I’m going to jump,” Tess said. I could see her moving to the edge of the branch.
“Tess, you better get down here,” my mom said.
“Shut up,” I hissed. “Can’t you see this is your fault? She’ll crack her head if she jumps. The water’s too shallow.” They stared back at me with twin expressions of shock and fear. For the first time, they looked old to me, and I realized they didn’t know what to do. I closed my eyes and breathed in, like they taught us in gym class when we had yoga week at school. Bending in pretzel-like poses didn’t come too easy for me, but taking calming breaths was a cinch.
“Tess, I want you to look at me.” Her eyes, wide and wild, darted between my parents like a pinball. “Don’t look at them, look at me, okay?” Tess turned her head and stared at me, but her eyes were still wild. “If you jump, you’re going to land in shallow water, okay? That means the water is not deep enough for a jump or a cannonball and you’re going to get very hurt, okay?”
Tess nodded her head, her brown curls bouncing next to her cheeks.
“Remember in swimming lessons how Jackie told us never to jump into water unless we were sure it was deep enough? Well, Tess, this water here is not deep enough. So, I’m going to climb up the tree and help you climb down.” Without waiting for her answer, I walked as confidently as possible over to the bottom of the tree, hoping no one else could see my legs shaking. My mother gasped and I looked up. Tess moved, and for a moment I thought she jumped, but she moved closer to the trunk of the tree to climb down. She was faster than me, so before I climbed halfway, she was right above me. I reached up, offering my hand. And when she placed her hand in mine, I started to cry.
Later than night, under the setting sun, Tess and I stood on the old white dock, a pile of flat rocks between us as we practiced our rock skimming.
“Where will we live?” Tess asked.
“Our house, I guess. Dad said he’s looking for a smaller place.”
Tess threw her rock, not even trying to skip it, and it landed with a loud splash far out in the dark water. Plopping down on the edge of the dock, she dangled her bare feet into the lake below. I squatted down next to her, drawing my knees up under my chin and watched the sun slowly sink behind the water.
“Do Mommy and Daddy hate each other?” Tess asked, kicking her feet in the water.
“No,” I said. “Sometimes after people get married they just can’t live together anymore.” I realized how lame that sounded and wondered what the whole point of marriage was.
“I’m never getting married,” Tess said.
I hesitated a moment, wiping the sand off my feet before whispering, “Me neither.” She slipped her hand in mine and we sat that way until the sun had gone down and the mosquitoes came buzzing around our heads.