July 4th, 11:32 PM
Willa Ames-Rowan never thought she would die. She firmly believed white should be worn before Labor Day, champagne was best enjoyed on an empty stomach, and sleep was for the weak. If it weren’t for the inky black water tugging at her limbs, clawing its way into her mouth, she might have welcomed the dark solitude of Hawthorne Lake. She might have floated on her back, counting stars, dreaming about what it would be like to wake up next to her future husband, what it might be like to marry James Gregory.
But not tonight.
Tonight, Willa Ames-Rowan was drowning.
As luck would have it, she’d just read an article recounting a Tsunami survivor’s near-death experience in a tattered copy of Reader’s Digest. This, while waiting for her acupuncture appointment earlier in the week. Willa took comfort in the survivor’s story because just before he passed out from lack of oxygen, he felt a moment of peace. He gave himself to the water, accepted his fate.
So Willa knew she couldn’t be dying because there was nothing peaceful about her struggle to determine which way was up, down, left or right. The moment she went under she’d decided to decline death’s invitation - with the socially acceptable level of regret, of course. She knew enough to remain calm, tread water, back float until someone noticed she was missing. Contrary to her sister’s judgy texts, Willa was a fighter. She would never let her life slip away in a Hallmark movie moment of blissful surrender.
She’d only had a couple of drinks but her head was cloudy and her limbs sluggish and heavy. She’d been raised on the water—boating trips, beach vacations, the Club pool—she should have been above the surface, not under it. Earlier in the afternoon, Willa had taken a dip in this very same water while the girls lounged on the beach. Madge yelled at her not to swim out too far, brown hair swirling around her face in the wind, her fair skin shielded by layers of sunscreen and a long, gauzy cover up. Next to her, Lina buried her nose in a magazine, all boobs and legs, doing her best impression of not giving a shit. And then there was Sloane with her pin straight hair and black almond eyes, looking like a tiny beacon in her bright pink bikini. She stood next to Madge, shielding the sun with her hand. Even from the distance, Willa could see the smile tugging at her lips. If Sloane weren’t so self-conscious, she might have been cheering.
And so it was her friend’s silent encouragement that pushed Willa on as brief bursts of light shone in the sky overhead, fireworks guiding her toward the surface. She scissored her legs toward the red, white and blue explosions. Her lungs burned, the muscles of her arms wept for a break. But still, she fought.
Images of the Gregory brothers bubbled to the surface of her consciousness. She couldn’t think of them now. But Rose McCaan was different. There was something about Rose that begged to be remembered. The quiet way she walked around the Club. Almost invisible. Rose was pretty, but she didn’t realize it yet, hiding an hourglass figure behind unflattering t-shirts and unfortunate shorts.
Willa knew Rose had a thing for James Gregory.
She knew but she didn’t care and now she couldn’t help but wonder if that kiss had somehow landed her here, in this water. Willa would take it back if she could. She’d take a lot of things backAnd for a moment she thought she might actually have the chance. She finally broke free of the lake’s slippery grip. Her head bobbed into the cool night air. But she opened her mouth too early and choked on the stagnant water. Hacking and sputtering, she was able to keep her head up long enough to drink in brief gasps of oxygen between coughs. The agony in her lungs slowly faded and for the briefest of moments she thought she was going to live to write a much more accurate drowning survival story, preferably for Teen Vogue.
But Willa never saw the hands that pushed her head back under.
She never felt the water fill her lungs.
And she was completely unaware of the champion-sized trout grazing her lifeless arm.
Willa Ames-Rowan never gave up and welcomed death.
Willa Ames-Rowan simply died.
PART 1: S.A.R. (Search and Rescue)
Rose stared at the water and whispered the Hail Mary in Spanish, the way her grandmother had taught her. She wasn’t sure if she believed in God, at least not the one the nuns at St. Agnes ranted and raved about, but Mary was a different story. Every summer she’d spent with her grandmother, she’d been reminded that Mary watched out for good little girls, especially good little girls with the middle name Marie. And something about the way her grandmother clutched the Rosary to her chest, blue beads tinkling against the silver cross, her knuckles white beneath papery skin, had always made Rose want to believe.
The repetition calmed her. She understood why people prayed in the face of tragedy. Praying provided the illusion of control. And, of course, there was the niggling possibility that the prayer might actually work. A miracle like the ones her grandmother had read to her from the back pages of Spanish tabloid magazines.
Rose shivered in spite of the humid air. It looked like every member of Hawthorne Lake Country Club was on the beach. The women wore sundresses that skimmed their knees and nipped in at the waist. They stood in tight circles whispering and crying while their husbands rushed around in dry cleaned golf shirts trying to look useful. Their movements seemed designed to look important. If they walked with enough authority and spoke in quiet reassuring tones, they might be able to bring Willa Ames-Rowan back to life.
But it was all a lie. Like everything else at Hawthorne Lake.
Willa was dead. The ambulance had screamed off in a blaze of sirens 20 minutes ago. Even in the darkness Rose saw the blue of Willa’s lips, the way her arm dangled off the side of the stretcher before it was gently placed back at her side. And now there was nothing left to do but pray to her grandmother’s Mary.
“Rose! Thank the lord.” Her mom wrapped her thin arms around Rose’s body and squeezed too hard. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” She was dressed like all of the other women on the beach that night, but with her jet black eyes and café au lait skin she might as well have been wearing a Club uniform. As Hawthorne Lake’s event planner, Pilar McCaan was afforded most of the same privileges as members, but she was still considered “staff” by everyone who mattered. The accent that snuck its way into a handful of her mom’s words, despite her efforts to suppress it, didn’t help.
Rose stiffened in her mom’s arms. She wanted to forget everything she’d seen over the course of the night. To un-know all the secrets. But she had watched Willa stumble around the yacht. And she’d seen her mom navigate the party like social climbing was an extreme sport. The past 6 hours ran on repeat in her brain like some kind of terrible movie. But there was no director calling scenes or strategically fading to black when images grew too intense. No Oscar-award winning makeup artist perfected the blue of Willa’s lips or added silicone strips to mimic the bloating of her skin.
Every moment was real. And it was all burned in high definition into Rose’s memory.
“Are you okay?” Rose’s mom held her at arm’s length, her thick-lashed eyes probing her daughter’s. “Did you see? I mean, I can’t believe she’s….You can’t tell him.” Her mom was using the voice she reserved for male members when their hands wandered a little too low at one of the Club’s famous star-lit parties. Rose always thought of it as her business voice and it normally stopped her dead in her tracks. But tonight she just shrugged her mom’s hands off her shoulders and resumed her vigil, her lips moving, the sound trapped inside.
Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia…
“He’s going to ask you questions. You have to be prepared to answer them.” White shone around the black of her mom’s wide eyes. “You know what will happen if you tell him the truth,” she whispered.
Rose nodded, her eyes fixed on the black and blue expanse of water in front of her. As the sky lightened on the cusp of morning, the color resembled an angry bruise.
Santa María, Madre de Dios…
Rose had lived the first 17 years of her life without ever making a mistake. Well, not unless you counted the time she’d let Katelyn Norris copy her English homework on the bus to school and was too afraid to speak up when her teacher questioned the identical paragraphs.
Her mom’s short, square nails dug into her flesh as they wove their way through the small groups of members still scattered across the beach. She regretted wearing sandals that pinched her toes, the heels sinking into the sand, slipping with every step. How stupid she’d been standing in front of her closet, pushing her feet into different shoes, yanking shirt after shirt over her head and leaving the rejects heaped in a corner. She’d never cared before. Tonight she cared too much. Maybe that was her first mistake.
No. She knew better.
Her first mistake had come long before criticizing her reflection in the mirror. It was the moment she’d accepted James Gregory’s invitation to his family’s annual 4th of July party. Or maybe it went even farther back, to the moment he caught her hiding in the boathouse, the night of the Club’s Summer Swing.
Rose shook her head slightly, her mouth still moving through the prayer. None of it mattered. Pinpointing the exact moment everything began to fall apart wasn’t going to change a thing.
And yet…maybe it was her last mistake that really counted: the moment her dad had swung her off the yacht, his detective’s badge catching the moonlight.
“Rose, what happened? Did you see anything?” His voice had probably sounded calm and professional to the perfectly coiffed couple standing behind her, but Rose could hear the note of panic underlining every word like a silent exclamation mark. Her dad had been around long enough to know that accidents didn’t happen at Hawthorne Lake. Rose had started to respond but choked on her words when she saw the paramedics frantically pumping Willa’s chest on the beach directly behind her dad. She had watched as they finally gave up and wheeled her slowly toward the truck.
“I have no idea what happened.”
Out of all the mistakes she’d made that night, this was the one she regretted the most.
Her mom yanked hard on her arm, pulling her through the crowd of people standing around the parking lot. Rose stared blankly at their old Lexus. It seemed wrong for it to be there. Normal, unchanged after everything that had happened tonight. She finished the prayer in English, the words barely a whisper.
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death.
To her surprise, before her mom unlocked the door, she met Rose’s dark eyes with her own and whispered, “Amen.”