There was magic in the lake.
Grammy told me that. Of course, Grammy was a bit magic herself. Every year on the last day of summer, Grammy packed her picnic hamper, and together we’d carry it down to the old dock where the reeds were thin and the ducks liked to gather. We’d sit for hours with our feet dangling in the water, just Grammy and me, because I was the oldest and (I suspected), that made me the favorite. We’d eat cheese sandwiches wrapped in crinkled brown paper and thick slices of Great Aunt Millie’s angel food cake, which Grammy promised Mother she wouldn’t let me have but always did anyway, and Grammy told me stories about when she was a girl. I’d swat at the horseflies and watch the sky change colors while I imagined a little girl version of Grammy splashing in the water and racing her older sisters across the shoreline.
On these Last Days, I could tell Grammy all of my secrets. When I was very young, I told Grammy about how I drew all over my babysitter’s homework, and confessed through tears how much I hated being a big sister. My secrets grew older with me, though, and there were many Last Days where Grammy listened to me cry about not getting into Middlebury, or how I worried I’d picked the wrong career, or how utterly relieved I was that Jeffrey asked for the divorce first. Grammy only ever listened as she stroked my hair and stared at the rich people’s boats swaying gently in the breeze across the lake.
Up a short foot path a few hundred feet from the dock sat the family’s lake house. It was actually more cottage than it was house, and it was very old. Grammy’s father bought the land in 1927 and built it from the ground up with a kit he ordered out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. It took him two whole summers to finish because it rained so much and Grammy’s mother was so ill. The original structure was a modest two bedroom one bathroom layout, but thanks to generations of tradesman uncles and cousins, it slowly grew by stories and sun lit rooms over the years. Its floors, long worn and dull now, were made of the same type of oak that lined the gravel driveway, and its walls were covered with years and years of pictures in pretty pewter frames.
Every summer those rooms were filled to bursting with the cousins that we rarely saw during the year; the Summer Cousins. Our days were consumed with sun soaked adventures on inner tubes in the middle of the lake, and our nights were filled with campfires and marshmallows and ghost stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. Our parents came and went throughout the weeks, but we rarely noticed them. Grammy and PopPop always told us that they got no greater joy than letting us do exactly everything our parents forbid us to do.
It was the kitchen, though, that held the best secrets. Large and sunny, with delicate white and blue Formica counter tops and a farmhouse table long and large enough to fit the whole family. The far wall was just one big window with a sliding door that opened onto a deck that overlooked the whole lake. Grammy always kept chewy caramel candy in a yellow Tupperware bin that was easily within our grasp. My memories of that kitchen were warm and cinnamon scented and full of big moments. It was in that very kitchen where Pop Pop asked Grammy to marry him. He was 18 and penniless, and Grammy’s father famously chased him away with a rifle that he later swore wasn’t loaded. This was the place where Mother told Grammy that she was pregnant with me. I was the first of all the cousins, but only by three days because Aunt Sue announced that she was pregnant with Danielle the very next morning. Aunt Sue was so furious at Mother for sharing her news first that it sparked the Great Sister War of 1982. They called a truce the very next summer when they realized that Danielle and I were destined to be best friends. This was the place where Uncle Joey announced that he had joined the army, and it’s the same place where we all found out that Uncle Joey had been killed in a training accident on his base. It was at this table where the four of us older kids; Jaime, Michael, Danielle and I made ourselves ridiculously sick playing Truth or Dare in the middle of the night with a bottle of PopPop’s Wild Turkey that Michael had found in the basement. This kitchen was haunted by laughter and tears and arguments; by coffee fueled morning hangovers and Sundays dinners.
I haven’t been back for any significant amount of summer since Grammy died five years ago. Life always found a way to interfere. First it was Sarah’s cheer camp, then Benji’s ACL surgery, then the move, and then just the sheer exhaustion of the thought of finding a sitter for the dogs and hauling two unwilling preteens and their luggage five hours north. This year, though, the kids are spending a month with Jeffrey and his new wife in Florida, and Danielle nagged just enough to be annoyingly effective.
The sun is just about to set behind the shoreline when I pull into the long driveway. It is a comfort to see just how unchanged the place is, and yet the absence of summer toys and bikes that had littered the yard throughout my entire childhood is jarring. This is a house of adults now.
Danielle is sitting on the top step of the large front porch that wraps around most of the house. Her face is illuminated by the soft blue glow of her phone screen, and I see a cigarette between her fingers, which means that her 16 year old twin boys did not accompany her this summer; Danielle never smokes around Colin and Corbin. I am always struck by how much Danielle looks like both of our mothers as adults, although I suppose she must think the same about me. We both have stick-straight dark hair which never curls despite the many perms we tried to give each other throughout the 1990s and lately shows every single gray hair in stark contrast. We both have Grammy’s muddy-colored eyes, and the same high-pitched, wheezy laugh that was our downfall every single time we sneaked down to the kitchen for late night slices of rhubarb pie and ice cream. Despite our physical similarities and a childhood bond that made us feel more like sisters than cousins, Danielle has always been just as wild and carefree as I was calculated and careful, and our lives have taken very different paths. I lived up to every expectation the family had of me without question; good grades, good college, good job, good kids. Danielle rebelled, and she lost herself for a long time.
Danielle looks up when she hears the crunching gravel under my tires and flies towards me in a blur of cutoff jeans and jangling bracelets.
“Annie Annie Annie!” she half shouts in a sing-song voice, and as she throws her arms around me, I can tell she’d already had a few Bud Lights.
“Danny Danny Danny!” I complete my part of our childhood chant from years ago and lean into the hug. Danielle feels smaller than I remember, although I have gotten significantly bigger in the last few years thanks to a dangerous mix of late night snacking and the prescription steroids I use to control my recently diagnosed Rheumatoid Arthritis.
The paint on the porch rails is faded and has begun to flake away, and each step creaks a bit under our weight. I wonder why no one has addressed these issues. Years ago, Uncle Bill and his boys would practically start a fist fight with Uncle Sal and his son Ricky to lay claim to the various improvement projects, and each brother made a summer hobby of pacing the house from top to bottom criticizing the other’s workmanship until Grammy would get fed up and banish them all to the fishing boat on the lake for a few hours. I had heard that Uncle Bill’s heart has been giving him problems this past year, but his three boys started a demolition company with Ricky a few years back after Uncle Sal had died, and according to Yelp, they are doing quite well.
The house has two sets of interior stairs; the main ones in the entryway and the secret stairs that lead from the closet in the back bedroom to the kitchen pantry. Grammy used to tell us that it was a magic staircase that only appeared to us kids when we wanted to do mischief, and though we knew better even from a very early age, it certainly came in handy throughout our teenage years when we came stumbling home drunk after closing down the Clubhouse Bar in the village. I was always absolutely sure that one or all of our parents would catch us at any second or were waiting at the top of the stairs to ground us forever. Michael always said that he’d cover for us if that happened, but it never did.
As I step into the foyer I am twelve years old again, and it’s the first full week of summer vacation. Familiar, nervous anticipation washes over my skin as I wait excitedly to see who is already here and pray silently to any summer god that might be listening that I haven’t missed any of the inside jokes that will define the next eight weeks. As if on cue, Jaime bounds down the staircase with a crooked smile and open arms.
“Annie.” He pulls me into a bear hug, and I am taken aback at how different he seems. Even though Danielle and I grew up in different towns, we saw a lot of each other during the rest of the year. But Jaime and Michael were Summer Cousins. They lived far away, and their lives outside of the lake house seemed big and complicated. Grammy and PopPop had a total of six children: My mother, Amy, was the first born, but Aunt Sue came just ten months later. Next came Bill, then the twins Sal and Joey. Jaime’s mother Lizzy was last, and Grammy called her Baby Lizzy even into adulthood. Jaime and Michael were technically step brothers; Michael’s real mother had died when he was a baby, and Jaime’s father hadn’t stuck around after Lizzy got pregnant. Baby Lizzy married Michael’s father when the boys were toddlers. Grammy told me the whole story when I was very young and got curious about why Michael had different colored skin as the rest of us. Grammy swore that a long time ago she wished on a star for a bonus grandson to spoil, and Michael was the living proof that wishes came true.
Even though Danielle and I were a full year older than the boys, Michael was always the Big Brother. He was the first to step in when I was 13 and some local boys started calling me Whale Baby at the ice cream stand. He was the first one that Danielle called the first time she got arrested for shoplifting, and when Corbin and Colin’s father put Danielle in the hospital for the third time, Michael was the one that drove 10 hours straight across four states to get the three of them out for good.
As a kid, Jaime was every bit as kind and gallant as his brother. But unlike his brother, Jaime kept his feelings and emotions close to his vest. Jaime was never a talker or a go-getter. Jaime was a watcher. In every single memory I have of the Summer Cousins, Michael is the Problem Solver and Jaime is the shoulder we cried on. As an adult, Jaime has a relaxed aura about him now. His smile is broad and genuine, and his eyes twinkle a bit. He is happy, and it radiates from him.
We all agree that Jaime is the most successful out of all of us. I have a Master’s degree and a complicated research career, but Jaime is the doctor of the family. Most of us quietly assumed that Jaime chose a career in medicine because of what happened to Michael, but Grammy insisted that Jaime was a born healer and forbid us to say anything to the contrary.
“Is your family here?” I ask. Jaime talked about being a father from the time he was six years old but he and Holly, his first wife, were never able to get pregnant. When she left him, Jaime put all of his energy into building his pediatric practice. Within five years, he had met and married Julie and was the proud father of a little boy and a baby girl.
“They’re coming down next week. They’re with Julie’s mom on the coast.”
“It’s just us the three of us 'til Sunday,” Danielle says.
If we had been 10 years old again, we would have immediately ran down to the lake and jumped in, clothes and all, as was the yearly tradition. As adults, we make small talk and then go our separate ways for a while. I am staying in the back bedroom, and stepping through the door is like stepping back into 1997, Nirvana blasting on the CD player and 14 year old me sharing my first sloppy tongue kiss through the open window with a scrawny local boy named Chad. Later that summer, PopPop caught Chad stealing crumpled dollar bills from his work bench in the garage and after that, Chad didn’t come around anymore.
Later, when it is fully dark, I find my way down the magic staircase to the kitchen. I am not surprised to find Danielle and Jaime already at the table playing cards and drinking out of Grammy’s old jelly jars with a half empty bottle of Wild Turkey between them. When I sit, Danielle pours some into a mug that says “Walter’s Water and Heating Est. 1984” across the side.
“Truth or dare?” she says.
Our version of Truth or Dare would be better called Take a Shot and Tell the Truth, because none of us ever chose Dare. There are two unspoken, unbreakable rules to our game: we must tell the complete truth, and we do not comment on another’s Truth. I drain my mug in one gulp. The whisky burns the back of my throat, and I am immediately filled with a tingly warmth that has eluded me for years.
“Truth,” I say. “My kids like Jeff’s new wife better than me.”
Danielle gives me a sloppy grin and chugs from her glass. My heart aches for her. Danielle has never learned her limits.
“Truth,” she says, her voice thick with drunkenness. “Corbin got his girlfriend pregnant. I’m gonna be a grandma. A 37 year old grandma. How fucking white trash is that?” She chuckles sadly.
Jaime sips his whisky slowly and there is a long pause. The wind coming off the lake has picked up and gently rattles the sliding glass door to signify an impending summer thunderstorm. Years ago, Grammy taught us how to be still and smell the rain before it comes. The house is filled now with that sweet, slight stormy air.
Finally, Jaime says, “Truth. I don’t think it was an accident. I think Michael meant to kill himself.”
We are silent because he is right. We have known for 15 years that he was right but no one dared say it out loud because that would make it real. As much as Grammy insisted to the contrary, Michael would have never, ever taken one of PopPop’s guns without a specific purpose. Michael never liked guns; he even cringed at the mention of one. On those summer evenings when the rest of us gathered around the rocking chair on the porch and begged PopPop to tell us stories about his grand hunting adventures as a small boy, Michael would quietly slip away to the kitchen and help Grammy wash dishes while she sneaked him extra cookies. But Michael had much bigger secrets; secrets that led him to PopPop’s gun cabinet on stifling, suffocating night in early August.
After a very, very long time, I break the silence. “Truth,” I whisper into my mug. “I think it’s time to sell the house.”
I spend the rest of the summer in blissful relaxation. I cook large dinners. I drink too much and laugh a lot, doze in the sunlight, and relearn how to kayak. Benji and Sarah call every night and tell me they miss me. On the Last Day, I wrap a cheese sandwich in crinkled brown paper and walk to the edge of the old dock. This is the very last Last Day; next year the house will be filled with a new family who will bring new magic to it. Now, though, I allow the warm breeze to caress my hair, and I watch the rich people’s boats sway gently in the breeze across the lake.