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Goblin tugged at her mooring, darting back and forth, her bow pitching high in the air and then dropping violently with every frothy, white-tipped wave. Her rope halyards—used to hoist the sails—slapped against the varnished wooden mast, and a corner of sail that had worked loose flapped noisily in the steadily building breeze. The leaves of the sugar maple tree in the front yard, so brilliantly green a few minutes earlier, turned their dull undersides upward, a million mirrors reflecting the angry gray sky above. Farther out on the lake, the whitecaps were already beaten down by a curtain of rain being pulled across the lake and toward the house and porch where Nicholas Mettleson sat.
His uncle—great-uncle, actually—had promised to take him and his twin sisters sailing today, but now that would have to wait. The worst of the squall—the heavy wind and the thunder and lightning—would pass by quickly, but the forecast called for the rain to continue most of the day. Nicholas was only a little bit disappointed, though. After all, it was just the third day of summer vacation; there would be plenty of time to learn to sail in the next two and a half months.
A few minutes later, Nicholas’s great-uncle Nick, a steaming mug of coffee in hand, came out onto the porch through the screen door, followed by his gray-muzzled dog, Pistol. “Mind if we join you? Looks like a doozy. No better place for watching a good thunderstorm.”
Nicholas smiled at him and scooted to the end of the wooden porch swing, where he felt the mist on his face as the rain blew through the screening. “Do you think Goblin will be all right?” he asked. “It’s really bouncing around out there.”
“Oh, don’t worry about her. She’ll be fine—ridden out worse lots of times. Much worse.” The chains supporting the swing squeaked as Nick and his young namesake settled in to watch the storm with Pistol curled up on the seat between them.
“Did you really build it, er, her?” Nicholas asked. He had been sailing only once before—in a much smaller boat at summer camp upstate two years earlier—and was still getting used to the idea that the twenty-eight-foot Goblin was a she, not an it. He was also trying to figure out how Nick, who, as a young man, had lost most of his left arm in a farming accident, could possibly have hand-built a boat as beautiful as Goblin.
“From keel to masthead,” Nick said proudly. “I’ll show you some pictures later if you like. Built her in the barn out back.”
Just then, a jagged blue flash of lightning lit up the darkened sky, and they both braced for the loud crack that followed.
“That was close,” Nicholas said, a touch of worry in his voice.
“Mrs. Phillips’s television antenna,” said Nick. “Gets it most every time. Sticks up about a hundred and ten feet. All so she can watch those soap operas. Never had much use for television myself. There’s a little one around here somewhere, if you kids get desperate. Course, reception isn’t much out here. Last time I checked, I think I picked up two stations in Erie.”
“Aren’t you afraid the lightning will hit Goblin?” Nicholas asked.
“Oh, I’m sure it has—more than once. No harm—she’s properly grounded. The current goes from the mast right down through the keel and out.”
“What if you were holding on to the mast when it hit?”
“Can’t say as I’d recommend that, Nicholas. You’d probably look a lot like one of those neon signs in Times Square.”
Nicholas laughed. Maybe this won’t be such a boring summer after all. Before Nick picked them up at the train station in Erie, Nicholas had met his uncle a grand total of three times: twice at weddings, and once for the funeral of Nick’s wife, Lillie, who had died two years earlier. When his dad first suggested sending him and his twin sisters to Nick’s house on Forsaken Lake for the whole summer, Nicholas was skeptical—especially after looking up the word “forsaken” in the dictionary and discovering that it meant “abandoned or desolate.” On the inside, he was quite certain that he would hate it, but his dad seemed so excited about it that he hid his true feelings—or tried to. Even though he had never spent any time “in the country” himself, all his friends back in New York City assured him that it would be the most boring summer of his life.
“There’s nothing to do in the country,” said one.
“There’s nowhere fun to go,” said another.
“And everybody knows everything you do,” said yet another. “So you can’t do anything fun anyway.”
Nicholas’s father, Dr. Will Mettleson, painted a very different picture of life at the old Victorian house, just steps from the lake. Growing up, he spent several summers with Uncle Nick and Aunt Lillie, and loved every second. He learned to fish and sail and camp and how to build things with his own two hands, and he swore to Nicholas that he never once missed the city while he was there. And he promised Nicholas that if he hated it, he wouldn’t have to go back the next summer.
But something else his father said really got Nicholas’s curiosity moving at warp speed.
“That old house of Uncle Nick’s, and the lake—they’re both full of secrets. You just have to know where to look. You never know what you might find.”
“Like what?” a wide-eyed Nicholas asked, forgetting his skepticism for a moment.
“Start in the tower room,” his father said. “That’s where I always slept. It has the best view; heck, it’s the best room in the house. Maybe the nicest room on the whole lake. I’ve already checked with Uncle Nick—it’s yours if you want it.”
The tower room, he explained, jutted up through the middle of the house as if somebody had set a greenhouse on the roof, and could be reached only by climbing a tightly wound, vertigo-inducing spiral staircase. The windows gave it a spectacular view of the lake, and on summer nights when the air was perfectly still and it was too hot to sleep in the other bedrooms, a breeze blew through the gauzy, sun-bleached curtains, keeping the room comfortable. Inside, it was the ultimate in simplicity. A bed. A small dresser. A brass telescope on a tripod. In other words, the perfect room for the twelve-year-old Nicholas Mettleson.
Nick and Nicholas sat together, swinging slowly back and forth as they watched and listened to the storm barreling past them. The lake was calm again, its surface ruffled only by the rain that continued to fall, though not nearly as hard. With a sailing lesson out of the question for the time being, Nicholas decided it was a good time to start his exploration of the house—beginning with the tower room.
“I’m going upstairs for a while, to watch from my room,” he said. “I’ll bet it’s like being right in the storm cloud.”
Nick sent him off with a little wave. “Go. Enjoy. We’ll go into town in a while. I need to pick up a few things. You can do a bit of exploring if you’d rather not go to the A&P.”
Nicholas climbed the staircase, past the small, simply framed oil paintings that lined the walls, not noticing until he reached the last one that they were all signed Lillie. He didn’t even know that his great-aunt had been a painter—and a pretty good one, he thought as he backed down the stairs to get a closer look at each. The paintings were a scrapbook of her life: the house and barn built by her great-grandfather in 1895; the lake in all four seasons; the yard, with its towering maples and poplars; and finally, Nick’s pride and joy, Goblin—resting peacefully at her mooring in one painting, heeled over with spray flying over her bow in another. That one made Nicholas want to go sailing even more.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” asked Hayley from the bottom of the stairs.