Read an Excerpt
They awaken me. The boys’ shouting is loud and playful, echoing across the water. There are two voices, both young. I pull the pillow over my head, but the voices grow, followed by a splash.
“Don’t be a baby,” yells one. It’s some kind of dare. “Go on, jump!”
There is no response. I hold my breath because I know. I know what’s about to happen; I can picture it. He is standing on the edge of Turtle Rock, just above the shore. In my mind I see him peering down, over the steep rock face, where the water is black and endless below. And I imagine him fall. The fall is slow and he’s twisting in the air, arms reaching back to the rock that disappears above him. And then it isn’t a boy at all, but Marni who I imagine. Her long legs point to the water, brown hair trailing above her in the speckled afternoon light. She doesn’t scream, just smiles and drops until she disappears below the black surface. My stomach turns, and I lurch upright in bed.
“Jump! Jump!” The other boy’s voice pierces the morning outside my window. Then, above it, there is another noise. A shriller, urgent scream shatters the quiet of my house. It is loud and fearful and I cover my ears. My bed-room door flies open, and then I realize the scream is my own, coming from my throat, raw and jagged, and I cannot stop. There is a fumble from beneath my bed as Cinder hops onto the covers, tail thumping nervously, worriedly. He woofs, and Dad descends on the bed behind him, scooping me up, pulling me in.
“Lacey, it’s all right, honey, it’s all right.”
The voices outside have stopped, probably in wonder. “They’re going to jump,” I whimper into Dad’s night-shirt. He sits back, his hair rumpled from sleep.
“Who? Who’s going to jump?”
“The boys outside. Tell them, tell them not to!” Tears are sliding down my cheeks, and Cinder licks them away. He’s wiggled in between our hug, and Dad rubs his black ears.
“Lace, those boys are okay. They’re only playing.”
“We have to stop them,” I cry, but Dad doesn’t move. He just rocks me, and Cinder presses his nose on my lap until the lake goes still outside my window.
When Mom and Dad first came to this lake in Maine, they say they knew it was for them. They settled in Saybrook, where they found a little clapboard house with a big back porch, perfect for a family. Almost all of the pictures on our parlor wall are of this lake and us. There’s one of Marni as a one-year-old, tottling on the sandy shore. There’s another of me grinning at the camera and Dad sticking out his tongue, the lake looming behind us. And there’s one of Mom in a red bathing suit, laughing, with Marni and me hanging on to her brown legs. I must have been five and Marni seven. The lake is everywhere, soaking our beach blankets, sucking our toes, suffusing the air we breathe. Growing up on this lake, Marni used to say it was in our blood.
In summer the lake glimmers, its surface reflecting sky, little clouds on little waves. It’s the start of July now, and the lake is wide and green, like Mom’s eyes. Sailboats are moored at the marina, and our yard tumbles down into the water, where our own small dock reaches in. Ours has just a canoe, ruby red. Dad named it 3 Grrrls, for us: Mom, Marni, and me.
The lake is always changing. In autumn it’s golden, floating leaves of red and yellow stretching like fingers across its shores. This is where the geese gather, deciding who will lead south the first frosty morning. Marni and I used to crouch in the cattails and wave goodbye each fall. When winter comes, the lake is a white stretch of icing atop a giant wedding cake. The skaters glide across it like little figurines, making swirls in the frosting. The lake is where I laced up my first pair of Christmas skates, white as snow. And where I fell hard, so hard that it knocked the wind out of me and Dad came running and Mom murmured, “It’s all right, let your breath find you.”
When the days get longer, our lake shifts and creaks. Dad says the ice is talking. Soon it melts, and come spring there is that smell, an earthy scent that surfaces from murky depths, deep, deep down. The lake comes back to life, the ducks return, and buds burst green and red. When I open my window on April days, I can smell it, green and lush and thick. But since it’s summer, there’s more for one’s senses. In addition to smelling it, I hear it. I hear the splashing swimmers, the purring motors of boats. The lifeguard’s whistle at the private beach around the bend. And this year I also hear a silence, one that fills me with a sense of darkness and cold. Like how I imagine the bottom of the lake is in winter. I do not swim there anymore. It is different now, not just in season but different from any summer before. This summer Mom and Marni have left us with this lake. And I draw my curtains closed, so I won’t see it.
My full name is Amelia Wallace Martin, but everyone calls me Lace. Wallace was my grandmother’s last name. Somehow it got shortened, and now it’s me. You might think since I’m named after Grandma Wallace we are real close, or alike in some way. I can assure you, we are neither. That name is the only thing Grandma Wallace and Ishare. Grandma Wallace is my mom’s mother, and she is from what we call the proper side of the family. Holidays spent at the Wallaces’ are stiff. There is a lot of sitting upstraight, whether it’s around the Christmas tree or at atable for someone’s birthday cake. They don’t like dogs, not even Cinder, and everyone likes Cinder. The Wallaces take small bites of their food, and speak in whispers when something shocking is discussed. And a lot appears to shock them. Like the time I ran around the lake in my diaper. Never mind that I was a tiny baby at a beach picnic. Diapers were not meant to be seen, and baby girls were not meant to run like wild animals, half naked. That, according to Grandma Wallace, was shocking.
The Martins, Dad’s side of the family, don’t shock much at all. In fact, Grampa Martin himself had forgotten his swim trunks the day of that picnic, and it was a scorching hot one. According to Dad, Grampa just pulled off all his clothes, right down to his plaid boxer shorts, in front of everyone. Then he did a cannonball into the lake, hooting and hollering and splashing around. I wish someone had taken a photo of Grandma Wallace’s face at that moment. That must’ve been shocking.
When Marni and Mom left for Portland two weeks ago, the only true shock I have ever experienced, I did not get to see if the Wallaces pinched their lips or whispered behind their hands. In fact, the Wallaces didn’t come. But the Martins couldn’t stop. Gran and Grampa, who I call the Grands, drove the three hours from their home in Vermont, and my aunt and uncle flew in from California. There were Gran and Grampa Martin sleeping on the pull-out sofa in the downstairs den, Uncle Matt and his kids squeezed into the guest room. And there was Aunt Mae, Dad’s younger sister, sleeping on a cot by my bed, her long dark hair spilling over the pillow, so close I could reach out and touch it. No one asked to stay in Marni’s room. Each night Aunt Mae sat up and whispered to me in the dark, until my eyelids fluttered with sleep. She didn’t tell me it was going to be all right, and she didn’t say that Marni and Mom would be home soon. Instead we talked about Cinder, or about school, things you might expect totalk about if everything was normal. I loved Aunt Mae for talking to me like that, most of all for the things we didn’t talk about.
When Mom and Marni went away, Dad went with them. At first. He came home about a week later, alone. Now he’ll go back and forth each week, driving the hours north. The Martins will keep me company when Dad leaves. And Mom calls us every night to check in with us. But nothing is the same. When Mom and Marni left, our sense of order left with them. When the Martins aren’t here to help, the kitchen sink is always full of dishes, and the laundry spills out the dryer, around the corner of the mudroom like a cotton snake coiling its way to the bedrooms. Dad has tried to keep up; he even stopped work for a while. Gran and Grampa invited me to stay with them for the summer. But I couldn’t leave Dad alone. So for a couple weeks we all camped out in the house, cramped together, eating and sleeping like a family does, and we kept at it until everyone got tired. By the end of June, Gran’s and Grampa’s backs grew tired of the pullout couch, and Dad got tired of tripping over suitcases. I got tired of pretending everything was all right.
“It’s time we all get back to normal,” Grampa Martin said. Dad nodded, as though this was something we could easily do. We put on our bravest faces and waved goodbye. I felt a relief come over me when Grampa’s red truck rattled out of the driveway, returning them to their own home. But mine felt emptier than ever.
“She’s up!” Dad ruffles my ponytail as I plop myself at the kitchen table. “Pancakes for my girl?” he asks. Cinder scoots under the table and licks my toe. The stove gurbles and glugs, noises that do not sound like pancake frying to me.
“Really, Dad, I can just have cereal. It’s fine.”
“No, no. Mom always makes strawberry pancakes in summer. So will we. Now, does it usually bubble like this?” He drops the spatula, and gooey paste splatters the cupboard door. Behind him the griddle smokes, more of the same paste oozing over the sides onto the burner.
“I think we have a situation,” he yells, whisking the pan from the stove. It’s the first thing Dad always says whenever anything goes wrong. And this breakfast looks really wrong.
“I think Mom usually mixes all that stuff in a bowl first.”
“Oh,” Dad says, and sighs. He gives the blob a poke with a finger, then dumps the whole thing in the sink.
“Cereal it is,” I say.
I open my sketchbook to my latest drawing. It’s of Cinder’s face, sort of a portrait. I grab a red pencil to color in the lobsters that dance across his dog collar. Every summer Mom gets us new swimsuits, and Cinder gets a new collar. Not this year. So I scrubbed his old collar real good. The red lobsters have faded a little, but it looks almost new. It’s navy blue with a big brass buckle. When I’m satisfied with the lobsters, I grab my storm gray pencil and work on his ears. The left one’s a little too pointy.
“So what’s the plan today?” Dad’s voice is too cheerful, and he looks at me with too much hope. It makes me want to hug him. He’s just returned from Portland, without the rest of my family, but with a deep furrow in his brow that twitches each time he looks at me. I turn back to my sketchbook.
Summer was something I had looked forward to. Endless days of swimming and ice creams at the Snack Shack under the hot sun. But that all changed on June 16, just two weeks ago. The Saturday that destroyed everything. Now, July stretches before me like a path into a dark forest. I look at Dad and shrug apologetically. I don’t have any big plans. I don’t want any.
“Not much,” I tell him. And then I add quickly, “Maybe I’ll go to the pool with Beth Ann.”
Dad looks relieved. “What a great idea! Here’s some money for cheeseburgers.” This makes him happy, so I take the five dollars he offers and stuff it in my pocket.
The Corner of Pratt
Beth Ann Watts is waiting for me on the corner of Pratt Street. Beth Ann is not what you would call popular, but she is certainly well known. We met in nursery school. She stood out to me right away because she was the only kid who didn’t have a blankey. What she did have was a handkerchief. A monogrammed, yellow hankie that went everywhere she went. But don’t be fooled by thinking that maybe it was a blankey substitute, ’cause Beth Ann never was a thumb sucker. That habit was dirty. Dirty habits were everywhere. So were dirty surfaces. That little yellow hankie was for cleaning all things in our preschool classroom: a door handle, a purple crayon, and Whinny, the rocking horse. She was quick with that hankie, even as a four-year-old. You could say, “Hey, Beth Ann, let’s play dolls.” And before you could kneel by the dolly crib she’d have all those dolls lined up on the floor, stripped right down to their plastic nakedness, wiping every hand and foot and head with that hankie. “Okay,” she’d assure me, dusting off that hankie, “you can touch them now.” Beth Ann doesn’t carry that hankie anymore. These days she carries a little pack of disinfectant wipes. I can always tell if Beth Ann is in school before me, because I’ll detect a faint scent of Clorox in the classroom doorway. But despite her war on germs, Beth Ann has always been my best friend. Really, she is the one friend I have.
Excerpted from The Properties Of Water by Hannah Roberts Mckinnon.
Copyright © 2010 by Hannah Roberts Mckinnon.
Published in 2010 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.