The Secrets of Lake Road
By Karen Katchur
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Karen Katchur
All rights reserved.
No one touched the bottom of the lake and lived. If you were lucky, you'd surface wide-eyed and frantic, babbling at the darkness, the thickness of what lay below. If you were unlucky, underwater recovery dragged the lake for your body.
As Caroline unpacked her duffel bag in the small bedroom where she had slept every summer since she could remember, she wondered who would be brave or stupid enough to try to touch bottom this summer.
The cabin door to The Pop-Inn creaked open and closed with a bang. Caroline rushed to the window to see who it was. A warm breeze blew, carrying the dampness of the lake and the smell of a barbecue. The leaves rustled in the hundred-year-old trees. She looked down the dirt road that led into the colony, catching her older brother, Johnny, pass by. If he'd noticed her watching, he pretended he hadn't. He wasn't five steps away when he lit a cigarette, a habit he perpetuated at the lake but never at home. Rules at the lake were lax if they existed at all.
He blew smoke from his lips and whipped his head to the side, sweeping the wavy bangs from his eyes. He walked down the hill with a swagger that was uniquely his, cool and a little cocky, but with enough insecurity that hinted at a sensitive side and, as much as she hated to admit it, a certain charm.
Caroline hoped Gram didn't see the cigarette. "No smoking in front of Gram," their mother had warned repeatedly during the three-hour drive from their home in New Jersey to the lake. But at sixteen-years-old, Johnny always did what Johnny wanted to do, no matter what anyone said. In a way she believed their mother was trying to protect Johnny from Gram's wrath, a disposition Gram reserved solely for Caroline's mother, but apparently her mother was as oblivious to that fact as she was to other things, in Caroline's opinion.
She returned to unpacking, putting clothes into the dresser she and Gram had painted white last summer. Her mother walked into the room and handed her clean sheets. While she made up the bed, her mother leaned against the doorjamb with a far-off look in her eyes. Her long dark hair cast shadows in the hollows of her cheeks, making her face appear gaunt, haunted.
The way her mother looked, her expression, reminded Caroline of the lake. There was a place inside of her mother as vast and as murky. It must be a sad place, because she often heard her cry. She imagined it was also a place where her mother felt trapped. She'd pull at her clothes and hair as though she were tangled in fishing line. Sometimes she'd run out of the house and drive off. Sometimes she wouldn't return home for days.
Gram said we all run from something, whether it was a terrible childhood or a bad marriage, or perhaps we run from ourselves, and Caroline's mother was no different. Caroline understood what Gram was saying, but she couldn't help but wonder why her mother was always running from her.
"All set?" her mother asked when Caroline had finished making up the bed.
"Looks like it." She ran her hand over the new green quilt Gram had stitched, smoothing out the wrinkles.
"I'm going to see what Gram needs from me." Her mother walked away, leaving her alone to finish unpacking.
Caroline unrolled her new poster of the latest boy band and pinned it to the wall. She particularly liked the lead singer, and it wasn't because she was boy crazy. She liked his skateboard. Okay, maybe she liked his hair, toothy smile, and flawless skin. That reminded her. She dug into the bag in search of sunscreen. She felt around and pulled out her cell phone. No bars or messages. She wasn't surprised. She tossed it into a drawer. It wasn't like anyone from home would miss her enough to text. And even if someone did want to contact her for some reason, it was next to impossible, since the lake was nestled deep inside the Pocono Mountains and what was considered a dead zone.
Gram's voice rang out from the kitchen. She paused to listen.
"Why not?" Gram asked.
"I have things to do," her mother said.
"You always have things to do. What things, Jo?"
"I don't know. Things."
A cabinet door was closed harder than usual.
"Can you at least stick around for a few days and help me clean out that back closet and porch? I can't do it by myself," Gram said.
Her mother sighed heavily. A second or two passed before she grumbled, "Maybe."
But Caroline knew her mother's maybes were always nos. She had learned at a young age that maybe was just her mother's way of putting off the answer you didn't want to hear. Could she get ice cream? Maybe. Could she go to the movies? Maybe. Could she get a skateboard? Maybe.
No ice cream. No movie. No skateboard.
Another cabinet door slammed, rattling the dishes inside, and Caroline figured Gram understood what maybe meant too.
Caroline went back to digging into her bag, pulling out an extra bathing suit and shorts. The cabin's screen door squeaked open and closed this time without a bang. Her heart beat a little faster. Someone was sneaking out and she knew who.
She dropped the clothes onto the bed, raced out of her room, passed Gram in the kitchen, and bolted outside. Her mother waved as she hopped in the car and pulled away from the cabin. Gravel and dust kicked up from the tires of the old Chevy as she headed down the dirt road.
Caroline swiped her eyes. Crybaby, she scolded herself. At twelve years old, she should no longer need hugs and kisses good-bye from her mother.
And yet she still wanted them.
* * *
Gram opened the screen door. "Are you hungry for lunch?"
Caroline shook her head. "I'm going to see who's around." She dragged her feet, and puffs of dirt covered her sneakers. No matter how many times Gram planted seeds, only sparse patches of grass grew under the shade of the old maple trees.
Most of the cabins in the colony had yards. Very few were able to get grass to grow.
Caroline grabbed her bike from the ground. It was considered a boy's bike, with the bar going across the frame rather than scooping down like a girl's would. She had asked the man who had sold her father the bike what the difference was other than the obvious disparity with the bar. He had said the design of the scooped frame dated back to when girls wore skirts and dresses rather than pants. Otherwise, there was no difference in the performance or the ride. She wasn't about to wear a skirt or a dress, so the boy's bike it was.
She coasted down the dirt hill and crossed onto Lake Road, the main thoroughfare connecting the colony to the lake, and stopped in front of the Pavilion, a big wooden building that served as the hub of the lake community. Nervous excited energy buzzed just below her skin, the kind of energy that bubbles to the surface with the prospect of things to come. The Pavilion was the unofficial meeting place, where her friends gathered, where they hung around the snack stand, bathing suits dripping wet, eating hotdogs and French fries while the jukebox played songs that were older than their parents. She checked her pockets, finding the quarters she always carried when she was there to play the retro pinball machines and arcade games, hoping for a shot at the highest score of the summer.
The lake spread out on both sides behind the Pavilion. The water shimmered and baked in the hot sun. Ducks milled around looking for handouts of crackers and stale bread. Caroline took a deep breath and smelled the faint scent of fish mixed with the earthiness of algae, a distinct smell she associated with summertime.
She dropped her bike on the side of the Pavilion next to her friend Megan's, a pink girl's bike, the same bike she had had since they were nine years old. Johnny and a bunch of his friends were sitting on the steps outside the large double doors. He had his arm slung around a girl's shoulder, and a cigarette dangled from his fingers. The girl's breasts spilled out of her tank top, and although Caroline tried not to stare, she did anyway. She couldn't help it. The girl had large breasts, and Caroline knew it was the girl's chest her brother was after. She felt a little sick and a little sorry for the girl. Sometimes her brother was a real jerk.
"What are you looking at?" Johnny asked.
"Nothing much," she said, and approached the steps. She started up on nervous legs, taking her time not to trip or bump into Johnny or his friends. Two girls leaned away as she stepped toward them. She reached for the railing to steady herself, feeling self-conscious, like a little kid, the way she felt whenever she walked by Johnny's best friend, Chris. He was one of the few locals who lived at the lake all year long. Something about his slightly dirty hair and his wide smile made him look as though he was up to no good. The thought gave her a sort of thrill that made her all the more uncomfortable. He was wearing swim trunks, his T-shirt draped over his leg. His skin was bronze and his stomach cut. His one eye was two different colors, half green and half brown, the other solid brown. She couldn't explain how, but his two-toned eye made him that much cuter. Once, she had overheard Mrs. Nester at the Country Store tell a customer his eye made him look as though he were off-kilter, and maybe that attributed to his reckless behavior.
"Something ain't right in there," she had said, and pointed to her head.
Caroline didn't believe this to be true. If anyone bothered to ask her, she would say there wasn't a thing wrong with him. He was perfect.
Chris grabbed her ankle as she passed. He flashed a playful smile and stared at her with his captivating eye.
"Don't let the snappers get you," he said.
Her brother laughed and flicked his cigarette butt over her shoulder. For a split second she thought about telling her brother to screw off. Two summers ago he nearly had his toe chomped off by a snapper and he about cried. Do you remember that, tough guy? But of course, she wasn't going to get into a sibling battle in front of his friends, in front of Chris, a battle she was sure to lose.
Chris released her ankle and her skin seemed to melt where his hand had been. She hurried up the rest of the steps and raced inside. The building was dark without the bright sunlight, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust.
"Caroline!" Megan called, waving her arms wildly. "Get over here."
Megan was standing in front of the old jukebox, and as soon as Caroline was within reach, Megan threw her arms around her and proceeded to jump up and down, jiggling them both. She let Megan twirl her in circles, feeling totally ridiculous and unaccustomed to so much silly exuberance.
When Megan finally released her, she gave Caroline the once-over. She returned the favor and noticed Megan's heavy blue eye shadow, pink shiny lips, and the two new bumps under her T-shirt. As if the pink bike wasn't enough, Megan had gone all girly on her in the last year.
Megan started talking fast, in a rush to catch up on everything she had missed since their last text messages, which turned out not to be much, even when you considered how short and few the texts tended to be. Mostly, Megan babbled about some boy, Ryan, she was crushing on. Caroline told her about playing softball, her struggling grades, and how she was glad summer was finally here.
"I hope there are some cute boys this summer," Megan said. "Maybe someone new. You do want a boyfriend, don't you?"
"No," Caroline said much louder than she had intended.
Megan shrugged. "Why not?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I do."
"Duh." Megan rolled her blue-lidded eyes and turned toward the jukebox. "I don't want to be the only one starting seventh grade who hasn't been kissed." She turned back toward Caroline. "And I mean properly kissed, tongue and all."
Caroline must've made a face as though she had tasted something awful, because Megan's eyes opened wide and she said, "It's not gross."
"If you say so."
"It's not." Megan looked back at the old jukebox. The outside world had moved on in terms of technology, but the lake and its community refused to succumb to any pressure to change. It was the sense of familiarity, of sameness, that Caroline found comforting year after year. She wished she could say the same about her friend.
They were both silent. The air between them felt awkward and strange. She didn't want to think about the things Megan talked about, about kissing boys, but her mind jumped to Chris anyway. Her ankle tingled where his hand had touched her, the skin still warm. She bent down and swiped the feeling away, pretending she had an itch. She cleared her throat. She wanted to say something to make the queerness in her stomach and the weirdness between her and Megan go away.
"Come on," she said, and tugged Megan's arm, thinking if she could get her to jump into the lake, the water would take care of everything else. For one, it would wash the paint off Megan's face and she would look more like the Megan from summers past. Two, it would rinse away the heat from Chris's hand on her skin — and whatever feeling that came with it, the one that squirmed in her stomach, would drown.
* * *
Caroline continued to pull Megan through the Pavilion and out onto the beach. No one stopped them to check for swim passes. No one cared. Caroline tossed her baseball cap, kicked off her sneakers, and stripped from her shirt and shorts to the one-piece bathing suit she wore underneath. The sand was hot to the touch. The girls hurried past the chain-link fence with the sign SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK, and stepped onto the pier.
Caroline looked around for anyone she might recognize, and spotted Adam. His family was one of the regulars who rented a cabin on the lakefront. He was a few years younger, at ten years old. His body was thin and birdlike. His summer buzz cut made his ears appear too big for his head. On either side of Adam were the Needlemeyer twins, Ted and Ned. They were one year younger than she and Megan, and as they walked toward them, she could've sworn she heard Megan call the boys babies under her breath.
The twins ribbed Adam, bumping him in the shoulder. Adam shoved Ted back. "I'll do it when I'm ready," he said.
"Do what?" Caroline asked. Behind Adam was the high dive, and beside it the low dive and the one most used.
"We dared him to jump off the high dive and touch bottom, but he's too scared. Chicken. Bwack, bwack, bwack." Ted flapped his arms.
"Am not." Adam shoved him again, which only coaxed Ted into flapping his arms faster.
"Let's see you do it," Megan said to Ted.
"What? You don't think I can?" Ted folded his arms, puffing up his chest.
"I think you're just as scared as Adam," Megan said, and lay down on the pier, positioning her body under the sun's rays.
"I'm not scared," Adam said. His face paled, and he looked as though he might cry.
Caroline stepped in front of him to shield him from the others. She didn't want Adam to cry, nor did she want them to see if he did.
"Go on," Ned said to his brother. "Let's see you do it. I dare you."
Ted glared at his twin and then turned toward the ladder and started to climb. For as long as Caroline had known them, neither brother would ever back down from a dare. It was a brother thing, or maybe a twin thing, always trying to one up each other.
Caroline watched Ted ascend. She had to shield her eyes from the sun when he reached the very top. "This is stupid," she said.
Ted walked to the end of the board. His brother called up to him, "Pencil jump."
He dropped his head as though he were hoping no one would suggest how he had to do it, but of course his brother did. "Fine," he said, and hesitated, head bowed, staring at the water below.
"Bwack, bwack, bwack." Ned flapped his arms.
Ted wavered. Ned kept squawking, taunting him. Until he jumped.
Caroline pulled in a sharp breath. At the last second Ted spread his arms wide to prevent a deep plunge. He hit the water with a slap.
"Chicken!" Ned called when Ted surfaced. Then he turned to Adam and said, "Your turn." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Secrets of Lake Road by Karen Katchur. Copyright © 2015 Karen Katchur. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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