Read an Excerpt
THE LAKE (Begin Reading)
The new English instructor at Graceville Prep was chosen with the greatest care, highly recommended by the board of directors at Blake Academy in Boston, where she had an exemplary career for twelve years. There was no history of irregular behavior to presage the summer’s unthinkable events.
—Excerpt from an internal memo Graceville
Preparatory School Graceville, Florida
ABBIE LAFLEUR WAS AN OUTSIDER, a third-generation Bostonian, so no one warned her about summers in Graceville. She noticed a few significant glances, a hitched eyebrow or two, when she first mentioned to locals that she planned to relocate in June to work a summer term before the start of the school year, but she’d assumed it was because they thought no one in her right mind would move to Florida, even northern Florida, in the wet heat of summer.
In fairness, Abbie LaFleur would have scoffed at their stories as hysteria. Delusion. This was Graceville’s typical experience with newcomers and outsiders, so Graceville had learned to keep its stories to itself.
Abbie thought she had found her dream job in Graceville. A fresh start. Her glasses had fogged up with steam from the rain-drenched tarmac as soon as she stepped off the plane at Tallahassee Airport; her confirmation that she’d embarked on a true adventure, an exploration worthy of Ponce de León’s storied landing at St. Augustine.
Her parents and her best friend, Mary Kay, had warned her not to jump into a real estate purchase until she’d worked in Graceville for at least a year—The whole thing’s so hasty, what if the school’s not a good fit? Who wants to be stuck with a house in the sticks in a depressed market?—but Abbie fell in love with the white lakeside colonial she found listed at one-fifty, for sale by owner. She bought it after a hasty tour—too hasty, it turned out—but at nearly three thousand square feet, this was the biggest house she had ever lived in, with more room than she had furniture for. A place with potential, despite its myriad flaws.
A place, she thought, very much like her.
The built-in bookshelves in the Florida room sagged. (She’d never known that a den could be called a Florida room, but so it was, and so she did.) The floorboards creaked and trembled on the back porch, sodden from summer rainfall. And she would need to lay down new tiles in the kitchen right away, because the brooding mud-brown flooring put her in a bad mood from the time she first fixed her morning coffee.
But there would be boys at the school, strong and tireless boys, who could help her mend whatever needed fixing. In her experience, there were always willing boys.
And then there was the lake! The house was her excuse to buy her piece of the lake and the thin strip of red-brown sand that was a beach in her mind, although it was nearly too narrow for the beach lounger she’d planted like a flag. The water looked murky where it met her little beach, the color of the soil, but in the distance she could see its heart of rich green-blue, like the ocean. The surface bobbed with rings and bubbles from the hidden catfish and brim that occasionally leaped above the surface, damn near daring her to cast a line.
If not for the hordes of mosquitoes that feasted on her legs and whined with urgent grievances, Abbie could have stood with her bare feet in the warm lake water for hours, the house forgotten behind her. The water’s gentle lapping was the meditation her parents and Mary Kay were always prescribing for her, a soothing song.
And the isolation! A gift to be treasured. Her property was bracketed by woods of thin pine, with no other homes within shouting distance. Any spies on her would need binoculars and a reason to spy, since the nearest homes were far across the lake, harmless little dollhouses in the anonymous subdivision where some of her students no doubt lived. Her lake might as well be as wide as the Nile, protection from any envious whispers.
As if to prove her newfound freedom, Abbie suddenly climbed out of the tattered jeans she’d been wearing as she unpacked her boxes, whipped off her T-shirt, and draped her clothing neatly across the lounger’s arm rails. Imagine! She was naked in her own backyard. If her neighbors could see her, they would be scandalized already, and she had yet to commence teaching at Graceville Prep.
Abbie wasn’t much of a swimmer—she preferred solid ground beneath her feet even when she was in the water—but with her flip-flops to protect her from unseen rocks, she felt brave enough to wade into the water, inviting its embrace above her knees, her thighs. She felt the water’s gentle kiss between her legs, the massage across her belly, and, finally, a liquid cloak upon her shoulders. The grade was gradual, with no sudden drop-offs to startle her, and for the first time in years Abbie felt truly safe and happy.
That was all Graceville was supposed to be for Abbie LeFleur: new job, new house, new lake, new beginning. For the week before summer school began, Abbie took to swimming behind her house daily, at dusk, safe from the mosquitoes, sinking into her sanctuary.
No one had told her—not the Realtor, not the elderly widow she’d only met once when they signed the paperwork at the lawyer’s office downtown, not Graceville Prep’s cheerful headmistress. Even a random first-grader at the grocery store could have told her that one must never, ever go swimming in Graceville’s lakes during the summer. The man-made lakes were fine, but the natural lakes that had once been swampland were to be avoided by children in particular. And women of childbearing age—which Abbie LaFleur still was at thirty-six, albeit barely. And men who were prone to quick tempers or alcohol binges.
Further, one must never, ever swim in Graceville’s lakes in summer without clothing, when crevices and weaknesses were most exposed.
In retrospect, she was foolish. But in all fairness, how could she have known?
Abbie’s ex-husband had accused her of irreparable timidity, criticizing her for refusing to go snorkeling or even swimming with dolphins, never mind the scuba diving he’d loved since he was sixteen. The world was populated by water people and land people, and Abbie was firmly attached to terra firma. Until Graceville. And the lake.
Soon after she began her nightly wading, which gradually turned to dog-paddling and then awkward strokes across the dark surface, she began to dream about the water. Her dreams were far removed from her nightly dipping—which actually was somewhat timid, if she was honest. In sleep, she glided effortlessly far beneath the murky surface, untroubled by the nuisance of lungs and breathing. The water was a muddy green-brown, nearly black, but spears of light from above gave her tents of vision to see floating plankton, algae, tad-poles, and squirming tiny creatures she could not name…and yet knew. Her underwater dreams were a wonderland of tangled mangrove roots coated with algae, and forests of gently waving lily pads and swamp grass. Once, she saw an alligator’s checkered, pale belly above her, until the reptile hurried away, its powerful tail lashing to give it speed. In her dream, she wasn’t afraid of the alligator; she’d sensed instead (smelled instead?) that the alligator was afraid of her.
Abbie’s dreams had never been so vivid. She awoke one morning drenched from head to toe, and her heart hammered her breathless until she realized that her mattress was damp with perspiration, not swamp water. At least…she thought it must be perspiration. Her fear felt silly, and she was blanketed by sadness as deep as she’d felt the first months after her divorce.
Abbie was so struck by her dreams that she called Mary Kay, who kept dream diaries and took such matters far too seriously.
“You sure that water’s safe?” Mary Kay said. “No chemicals being dumped out there?”
“The water’s fine,” Abbie said, defensive. “I’m not worried about the water. It’s just the dreams. They’re so…” Abbie rarely ran out of words, which Mary Kay knew full well.
“What’s scaring you about the dreams?”
“The dreams don’t scare me,” Abbie said. “It’s the opposite. I’m sad to wake up. As if I belong there, in the water, and my bedroom is the dream.”
Mary Kay had nothing to offer except a warning to have the local Health Department come out and check for chemicals in any water she was swimming in, and Abbie felt the weight of her distance from her friend. There had been a time when she and Mary Kay understood each other better than anyone, when they could see past each other’s silences straight to their thoughts, and now Mary Kay had no idea of the shape and texture of Abbie’s life. No one did.
All liberation is loneliness, she thought sadly.
Abbie dressed sensibly, conservatively, for her first day at her new school.
She had driven the two miles to the school, a redbrick converted bank building in the center of downtown Graceville, before she noticed the itching between her toes.