A Fire by the Lake
Every summer for as long as I can remember, my family took a weekend vacation to the lake. A buddy of my father's owned a lake house and was generous enough to offer it to us for a full three days out of the year. Not that 'the buddy of my father's', as my mother always called him, ever resided in the lake house for any time more than that in the several dozen years he owned it put together. That being said, the house still had that lived-in look that only real homes could achieve. I supposed it was down to the family time we had there, three days a year in the summer.
My mother, my father, myself, and my three brothers made memories at the lake house every year. Every summer I'd watch my father sweep the ashes from the grill so he could fire it up. I had a sneaking suspicion that the only reason the pile of dark ashes remained there year after year was a test to see if the buddy of my father's even went to the house to check up on it. I could picture my father staring his buddy down in meetings, waiting for his buddy to remark on how he wished that he'd clean up after himself and his family summer after summer. And yet, as time still stood, the buddy of my father's said nothing.
When I was younger, I thought the lake house was magical. Late at night, I'd sneak out to the dock and turn with my back facing the midnight black water to just stare at it. The stars above the house shined brighter than anything I'd ever seen back in the city, and I felt my heart fall in love with the sight of the clear, dark sky outlining that house by the lake. It didn't matter that everything smelt like fish, or that sometimes the moss and algae got so bad that it was impossible to take a rowboat out there because the rows would get stuck in the hair-like plant. That house, and everything around it, was magic.
Anyways, one of the nights when I was outside, something happened. At the time, I hadn't thought anything of sneaking outside, past my sleeping older brothers' forms, to ogle at the scene of the tiny waves lapping against the small beach of the backyard while fireflies flickered in the distance. I was nine, and nothing was really very dangerous. What could be so wrong about going outside in the middle of the night where no one could see me?
What I hadn't counted on was the loose board on the dock. After who knows how many years of neglect, the dock had come to a state of disarray. As I stepped backwards, my foot caught on the upturned edge, and I went flying over the side of the dock with a mighty splash. Don't get me wrong, I knew how to swim, but in that particular moment, my fall had caught me so off guard that I panicked in the water. I remember my dark hair flying all around me, blending in with the algae growing in the shallower part of the lake, while I splashed and squirmed helplessly.
I'd looked up at the surface of the murky water and hoped that I'd magically float to the top. But, at nine, I'd known it was a lost cause. I just wanted out of the water so badly that I was willing to thrash any which way until I reached the surface. My wild thrashing only resulted in the slow burn of my muscles, running out of oxygen as I hadn't yet caught a breath. I had thought, then, that this was the end for me. The end of the line-and I was so scared of the impending darkness that was darker yet still than the pitch black water surrounding me. It must have been just as I was drifting off when I felt a tug at my waist, pulling me upwards, when I realized that I wasn't going to die.
I was dumped in a small rowboat head first, thunking my noggin against the wooden seats in the middle before the rest of me followed, pushed upwards by a pair of small hands, childlike-like my own. I must have forgotten how to breathe, because as the boy hoisted himself up into the boat, his eyes filled with panic. The darker spots in my vision were growing steadily and I kept telling myself to breathe, but it wasn't working and my eyes were shutting even though I also kept telling myself not to close them. He fumbled over to me in the boat, not caring that it rocked violently when he did so. I felt a faint pressure on my lips and air being pushed into my lungs several times before my eyes opened all the way again and I retched over the side of the boat, holding the wall for support.
When I was done, I turned back to the boy and croaked, "How did you know how to do that?"
The small lines in his face smoothed and he laughed a little. "I saw it in the movies," he told me.
I nodded, coughing. "Thanks," I said, sticking my dripping hand out for a handshake, "I'm Remy."
He took it and squeezed lightly, "I know who you are. Your family comes here every year. Everyone knows who you guys are. But I'm Theo."
"What are you doing out here?" I asked, my throat grating my words.
He laughed, "I like to sit on the roof and watch the lake. What are you doing out here?"
I blushed, hiding my face shyly, "I like to sit on the dock and watch the house at night."
That was how I met Theo. We sat in that boat for hours just talking. I asked him about school and what kind of cartoons he liked, and he asked me about my family and if I thought cooties were a real disease. I'd replied with, "I hope not because that'd mean we'd both have it."
Theo was ten years old, he liked fishing with his grampa, and he was the easiest best friend I'd ever made. I never knew what it was about Theo that made me open up about myself, but I was glad for it. The friends I'd made back home seemed silly compared to him-not a single one of them were able to get some of the things out of me that Theo was able to get with just one conversation. I'd told him about the buddy of my father's and how he scared me even though I'd never been able to look at his face. The shiny black of his shoes he always wore somehow seemed menacing to me and I'd always stared at the ground while he chattered on and on. I'd told him about my fear of being called a freak because I wasn't afraid of spiders. I liked them, actually.
Theo listened attentively to my every word and promised that he wouldn't tell anybody. He thought the spider story I ended up telling him was cool, and gave me a wide, gap toothed grin when he heard me say the spider's name was Mr. Jingles. Earlier that week, Theo had lost one of his front teeth and I couldn't help but notice that whenever he said a word with an "s" in it-for example, "Mr. Jingles"-that Theo would lightly whistle through the missing tooth's hole. With every word and lopsided grin in my direction, the crush in my heart was growing steadily stronger.
When the sun started to rise over the lake, we realized that we had stayed out too long. We promised to meet up later that day, and I couldn't wait to see the boy that had saved my life and stolen my heart all in one evening.
I'd gone back inside the house and fallen asleep on the couch, dreaming of building sandcastles and rowing in our rowboat all the way across the lake just to see what the other side looked like. I never got the chance to make my dreams a reality because when I woke, my brother, Jeremy, had a nasty fever and we had to go home a day early because of it. As my mother took my arm and pulled me along to the car, I spotted Theo getting out of an old pickup truck with who I assumed to be his grampa. I wanted to scream to him across the way to not wait for me, because I wouldn't be by the lake that night when he came looking for me. When his green eyes met mine, the words died in my throat and I mouthed "Until next summer?" and was shoved into the car before I could get a reply or see that he'd gotten my message.
Heart hung low, I sneaked a glare at my heavily sweating brother. I huffed and refused to look at him for the rest of the car ride home-which was a long and painful eight hours. Even though I'd only just met Theo, I knew I wouldn't be forgetting him any time soon.
Every summer after that, things were different. I first roamed the grounds of the lake, searching for my guy. When I finally did spot him one day, a year after my near-drowning, I waved happily, grinning like the biggest dork. Theo saw me, I know he did because it was impossible not to notice the small girl jumping around happily and squealing in excitement. The thing was… he only gave me a cold, dark stare, ebony eyebrows scrunched together in pain. That was enough to freeze my heart over. I didn't go out looking for Theo after that.
Nevertheless, it was impossible not to run into him. Only three measly days out of the year, and I saw Theo at least once every year. As time passed, we both grew older. Theo shot up a few feet over the course of two years, and the skinny, brave boy I'd known for a night morphed into a more handsome, tall, and mature man. I had realized that the year I turned sixteen.
Of course, I'd changed as well. The Remy he knew also went through a metamorphosis. I'd started my period, then grown some boobs, gotten somewhat taller, and had learned the precise art of makeup and hair products. Gone were the days of sun bleached hair and farmer's tans. I had somehow magically turned into a woman, and I knew it too.
Through every relationship that didn't last when I was home, I still thought of Theo. I knew it was weird, but I just couldn't help myself. I always wondered what it would have been like had I not had to leave that day Theo and I were meant to see each other again. It was stupid, really. I'd known the kid for a day and yet, every time I saw him, it was like the breath I'd been holding since the year before was finally able to be let out… which also didn't make any sense whatsoever. But each time I got within spitting distance of the kid, one of us would have the need to make a disgusted face or offensive gesture or insulting remark. If I'd counted how many minutes Theo spent glaring at me, it might have added up to the full three days of the year I was allowed to spend at that damn lake every damn summer.
But it wasn't until I turned 18, about to go to college that it happened again. I was feeling sentimental about the place while trying to simultaneously ignore my brothers. Now apparently older and wiser, they either spent all their vacation time at the lake house playing video games, drinking moonshine in the woods, or challenging each other in a variety of water sports. Don't get me wrong, I love a good game or two myself-with a nice shot of almost pure alcohol on the side-but there were bits of their lifestyle that I just couldn't handle 27/7. One of those "bits" would be the half-nakedness they had adopted that seemed to be just another way for them to justify that they were obviously the better brother. Whenever I caught them in such a competition, I'd mimic their moves, flexing my arms repeatedly in front of the mirror and rubbing my hand over my "washboard abs". Out of the whole lot of them, I was clearly the best-or at least that's what I bragged sarcastically to them. They'd stop and stare at me, rolling their eyes and walking away while I giggled like a maniac inside my head.
After trying to "impress" my brothers became boring, I wandered outside for another look at the house. It was getting older, along with all of us and all of the signs were showing. The once crisp white of the siding was chipping off, especially near the ground. The cracked sidewalk swung around the house like a dried moat-not very effectively claiming the house. There was a crack in one of the windows on the upper level. The lake house looked deserted and kind of creepy even when there was an entire family living temporarily inside. It was tragic to look at and in that moment, I realized that the magic of the lake house had finally worn off.
I stayed out, looking at the house from the dock, stepping carefully (a newfound habit of mine), waiting for the black backdrop to fall against the house and the Milky Way to show its face. Fireflies came and went and came back again, flashing in all of their brilliance, temporarily bringing a smile to my face because I realized that even though stunning for only a moment and then gone, the fireflies had never lost their magic because they always come back.
I sighed, leaning my hand against my palm when I suddenly came up with an idea. I remembered what Theo used to do-sit on the roof and watch the lake. What had he seen up there that I was missing by staying at the dock all this time?
So I clambered over to the deck, placing a chair at the bottom and pulled myself up onto the lower part of the roof over the garage. Momentarily I lost my balance, crouching down immediately and bracing my palms against the rough shingles, cursing when I scraped them against the sandpaper-like texture. I crab walked over to the dip on the second story of the roof, using the gutter system to reach the very top of the roof. I had to see what I was missing all these years.
My heart was racing by the time I made it to the highest point of the roof. Sighing in relief, I relaxed my stance to turn and look out at the lake. What I saw took my breath away.
The lake was as dark as the midnight sky, reflecting anything and everything that was above it, save the spots where fish dared to break the surface and ripple the calm exterior. The stars shone both above the lake and inside of it, making the backyard of the lake house seem like a complete galaxy. Like everything was suspended in space. I stared out at the piece between where the land met the sky and saw the glittering lights from houses bordering the other side of the lake, and the purple haze from where the city lights bled into the night sky, almost like a fire was raging on the horizon.
And all this time, I'd sat with my back against the beauty, claiming to have seen some great magic in a small house bordering the lake-a spot that wasn't even the tip of the iceberg to the view I could have seen all this time.
I was shaken out of the spell of what I was seeing when I heard a male voice yell up to me, "What the hell do you think you're doing?!"
Startled, I jumped, losing my footing on the roof. Knowing that it wasn't exactly a good thing to fall off the roof of a second story building, I screamed in terror as I started to fall over to the corner of the roof. I grabbed at the shingles again, hurting my hands even more and feeling new panic as I couldn't hold onto the roof.
I heard the guy curse at the sight of me tumbling off the roof, and shuffling as I supposed he ran over to where he suspected me to land. As I hit the air, I braced myself for the impact of the ground, but ended up only feeling arms come around me and then the secondhand impact as he hit the ground with me on top of him.
Winded, I coughed, wheezing and trying to catch my breath as I started to shake as an effect of the adrenaline and fear. My palms felt slippery as I tried to orient myself and get off of whoever it was that tried to catch me. I looked down and saw a dark substance covering them, my knees, shins, and tops of my feet.
My breath hitched as I tried to not let the fact that I was bleeding from many places bother me. It did anyway and I felt tears slide down my face. Soon after, I was heaving sobs.
When I looked to see who I landed on in the middle of trying to calm myself down, I realized that it was none other than Theo, who was staring at me with a look of panic and pain. He grunted and moved out from underneath me, turning to gasp my shoulders and shush my terrified cries and uncontrollable shaking. I was only able to get myself under control when Theo decided that warily rubbing my shoulder wasn't working, so he hugged me tightly.
"You big idiot," I sniffled. "Why did you have to scare me like that?!"
He grimaced and wiped blood from my chin, muttering, "So I'm the idiot here? What were you even doing on the roof?"
"I was looking at everything! Just like you used to do!" I argued, trying to wipe my tears, but only succeeding in smearing blood on my face from my palms. I hung my head not wanting Theo, the guy who tormented me for years, to see my pain and inability to even help myself.
He stopped talking, staring at me as I tried my best to not look at him. I would have walked away, but I didn't trust my legs to carry me back into the house to get someone to clean me up. He sighed, grabbing my legs and waist, hoisting me up in the air and I sucked in a surprised breath.
Grimly, he said, "Next time, don't take advice from my ten year old self. I was an idiot back then."
"I'll say!" I huffed, slinging my arm around his shoulder as he started to walk away. "Where are you taking me?" I asked, almost not wanting to hear the answer.
"My house. I'll clean you up-you're a mess."
I said nothing, knowing he was right. Even so, it didn't stop my mouth from puckering in a grimace. After a moment, I muttered, "Well I did just fall off a roof, so…"
"Yeah… and nearly gave me a heart attack!" Theo said, glaring at the air in front of him. He gripped me tighter and mumbled sourly, "I can't even believe you did that. Are you trying to kill yourself or something?"
"No!" I exclaimed, wanting to hit him in the face. He set me down on the bench of the same old pickup I saw him in the day after I met him. "I just wanted to see what was so amazing up there!"
"Anybody ever tell you that curiosity killed the cat?" he spat back, bracing his arms on either side of me, staring directly into my eyes.
I rolled my eyes, scrunching up my nose, "I'm not a cat, you idiot!"
He huffed a long, drawn out breath, teeth on edge. After a beat of silence he said, "I'll be right back with some bandages."
I grunted in annoyance when he left, flinching when he slammed the porch door. What I didn't want to admit was how I was strangely happy at being able to talk to Theo, even though I was in a considerable amount of pain. I didn't want to fight, but the nine year old in me was still pouting.
Only when Theo returned with bandages and alcohol wipes did I realize that the cleanup of my fall could hurt worse than the actual fall itself. I winced as Theo began wrapping sections of my legs. He didn't speak the entire time and neither did I. The feeling of his rough hands going over my legs was enough to make me nervous. But when he scraped a nail into a cut and I whimpered, he glanced up at my face and shot me a look of annoyance that quieted the nervousness right away.
After a few minutes of complete silence I decided to stop pouting. Theo had moved to my palms, holding them so gently that I suspected he wasn't as annoyed as he let on.
"I missed you, you know," I told him softly.
He grunted in return. I sighed and moved my hands out of his reach. "Look at you," I said tipping my chin in his direction, "you can't even talk to me now." He took a hand back saying nothing.
"That night… you became the best friend I'd ever had. Nobody compared to you," I said sadly, looking down at the large bandages on my feet being held down by pieces of tape.
His grip tightened on my hand as he ground out, "What are you talking about? We only barely talked."
"Liar!" I gasped; astonished that he would diminish what happened.
Theo abruptly let go of one hand and started working on the other. He dumped the alcohol solution on my wounds violently and I flinched, pulling my hand back and crying out. When he tried to get it back, I leaned backwards enough for him to get the point.
He clenched his jaw and demanded, "Just give me your hand!"
"No!" I shouted. Quietly, I added, "You hurt me!"
He sighed heavily, running a hand through his thick, dark hair, muttering, "I'm sorry, Remy."
"You should be," I couldn't help but add as I gave my hand back.
"Just so you know, Remy, I missed you too. More than you know," he said and tears flooded my eyes. As he looked up to see why I wasn't saying anything back, I saw his sincerity. There was a silence as we both realized what the other was feeling. Hesitantly, he reached for my face, wiping the area I scraped with a gentleness that left me breathless. I looked at him the same moment he looked at me and the intensity of his eyes made me lean a little as he did. The next thing I knew, we'd reached for each other and we were kissing with a force that had been bottled up for nine years too long. Not an inch of feeling for him had left me since I met him.
We broke away after a minute, and realized that moments like this was where the magic was all along and even though it was just as fleeting, as all the best things are, it didn't mean that more fleeting moments couldn't come by again… like the flicker of a firefly.