- Publisher: Ladylit Publishing
- Available in: eBook, Paperback, Audio
- ISBN: 978-988-13637-7-0
- Published: November 12, 2014
Sometimes you need to go back to where you came from…
After a traumatic event that has left her in deep need of healing, Ella Goodman returns to her hometown in Oregon. While staying at her family’s cabin at the West Waters lake resort, she finds an unexpected friend in level-headed owner Kay Brody. But Ella’s sole objective is to restore the broken ties with her family, and she has no time for distractions like falling in love. The healing process is confrontational and difficult though, and she is soon forced to realize that people like Kay only come along once in a lifetime.
Word count: 60.000 words
Driving past the yellow sign for West Waters instantly takes me back to a time when I was happy. It’s not so much a single concrete memory as a tangled-up rush of them flooding my brain. My sister and I running barefoot in the grass around our cabin, dipping that first toe into the water on a carefree Saturday morning, bright-colored candy from the improvised shop by reception, the intoxicating smell of suntan lotion, Dad wearing the same pair of faded beige shorts for the entire weekend.
I pull into the parking lot and find a space close to the entrance. Even though the middle of August should be the peak of the vacation season, I count only two other cars in the lot. Everything looks satisfyingly familiar: the grassy curb, more neatly trimmed than I remember, the cabin roofs dotted against the mass of green surrounding the lake, a strip of water flickering under the midday sun in the distance. Yet as if belonging to another lifetime.
When I deposit my city-girl case on the uneven concrete, I realize I’ll look like a fool if I try to roll it down the rickety path to reception. I grab the handle and lift the case, which is not very heavy. I only brought a few sets of clothes. Some books and a laptop—not for work, only for self-improvement. And only one blazer.
There’s something about the air in this place. It takes me back to a simpler time, a time when it was a given that air was clean and pure, a time when I didn’t worry so much. It’s only a short walk to the wooden shack where I need to pick up the key. Through my parents, I know that both Mr. and Mrs. Brody are no longer with us, and that Kay is running things now.
I see her before she realizes I’m there. Crouched down, studying something on the ground, poking her finger into the soil. I clear my throat to announce my arrival.
I watch Kay shoot up, rubbing her hands on her shorts. “Hey.” Her eyes light up when she recognizes me. “Well, I’ll be damned. Little Ella Goodman.”
Growing up, I was always shorter than the other kids my age. Now, I stand just as tall as Kay, whose build is stocky and muscular.
“Mom should have notified you that our cabin will be occupied—” I stop mid-sentence. Unable to shake the sensation that, somehow, she knows. That the reason I came here is plastered across my face.
Kay tilts her head, regarding me with some sort of glint of expectation in her eyes. Of course, she doesn’t know. Hardly anyone does.
“Yep. Dee warned me.” Her voice is matter-of-fact, with the delivery of someone who never questions her self-confidence. “Let’s go in.”
I follow her inside the shack—or ‘the shop’ as my family called it when I came here as a child. From the outside, I hadn’t noticed the extension to the side.
“I spruced it up a bit.” Kay must have noticed the look of surprise on my face. “We even have a laundromat in the back these days.”
“Fancy.” I scan the neat aisles, all pleasantly lit and shiny, and what looks like a brand new fridge and freezer against the back wall.
“It isn’t the eighties anymore, Ella. We have Wi-Fi now.” Kay leans against a proper reception desk—laptop and all—and grins at me. “Let me get your key… card.” She taps a few times on the laptop’s keyboard, opens a drawer and produces a key card like in a hotel. “Have you liked our Facebook page?” she asks, a grin slipping across her face as she hands me the card.
“I will,” I stammer.
“Don’t worry, it’s not mandatory, but a check-in on Facebook is always appreciated.” She leans her elbows on the counter. “Unless you’re here on the down-low, of course.”
I don’t immediately know what to say, so unprepared am I by seeing Kay—whom I haven’t seen since I last visited West Waters many years ago—so quickly after arriving and the unexpected topic of conversation that’s making me feel uncomfortable.
“I’m just screwing with you.” She rests her almond-shaped eyes on me—again, that sensation that she is looking right through me and seeing all my scars. “Welcome to West Waters. I hope you enjoy your stay with us. It can get quite busy over the weekends, but you should be fine out there in the Goodman cabin. You should see what they’ve done to the place.”
I vaguely remember my mother mentioning remodeling the cabin a few years ago, but I was probably too busy to take in the details. Listening to her with one ear, while scheduling a lecture in New York and going over a research report.
“Can’t wait.” I flip the key card between my fingers a few times, desperate to make more small talk—not because I’m so eager but because it’s what expected in a situation like this. “Is it just you running the place?”
Kay shrugs. “Most cabins are privately owned, so not too much fuss for me.”
“What about the off season?” The next question comes easily because I’m genuinely interested in the answer.
“People come even when it rains. It’s only in the depths of winter that it goes really quiet. Then I take the time to think of ways of improving West Waters, usually over a few beers at The Attic.” Her chuckle comes from a deep place, like an old man’s laugh.
A bell that I hadn’t even noticed when I followed Kay in, goes off, as a man with wild white hair walks in. He tilts his chin when he spots me and, out of nowhere, winks at me.
“Uncle Pete,” Kay says in a loud, booming voice. “Here’s your reading material for today.”
As the man shuffles to the counter I make my way to the door. Kay presents him with The New York Times and The Northville Gazette.
“See you later, Ella,” she shouts.
I give her a quick wave and exit the shop. Once outside, I need to scan my surroundings to orientate myself. My family’s cabin is situated on the edge of the grounds, near the most western tip of the lake. I breathe in a large gulp of air, then another, enjoying the quiet, sun-drenched hum of a summer afternoon in Northville, Oregon.
* * *
Kay was right. From the outside, our cabin looks the same, but the inside could easily appear in Country Living, the ‘maximizing a tiny space in a semi-fashionable way edition’. The wooden boards lining the walls and ceilings are new and light-brown, giving the interior a shiny, but cozy feel.
The kitchenette—taking up half of the lounge area—boasts new appliances, but the true stunner is the bathroom. A dark-gray tiled walk-in shower, flanked by one of those modern water basins, the kind of which you can never be sure where the water comes from.
I remember an unanswered email from my mother containing pictures of this overhaul. If it weren’t for that, I’d be suspicious that, somehow, they did this all for me.
The second bedroom, too narrow for more furniture, still houses bunk-beds, but the old closet has been replaced by a built-in one, made with the same planks as the rest of the cabin.
I stopped joining my parents for weekends here as soon as they allowed me to stay home with Nina. She was seventeen—and up to no good—and I was fourteen, and already so at odds with the world. Today, I deposit my suitcase in the room where my parents always slept, and even though it doesn’t feel quite right, I don’t particularly feel like crashing on the bottom bunk in the room next door. For all the times I came here as a child, I never once slept in the master bedroom.
More than anything, I’m drawn to the lake. I kick off the sneakers I wore for driving and head to the porch running around both sides and rear of the cabin. From there, it’s easy to reach the landing that leads directly to the lake. I sit and let my feet dangle in the water, instantly transported back to the hours I spent here as a child. Observing the water creatures, watching the sun climb until it was almost perfectly on top of the lake, making the surface glimmer like a mirror broken in all the right places, waiting until it dipped behind the trees on the other side, in the early dusk of summer, and painted the lake orange.
Judging from where the sun now hangs in the clear blue sky, already having started its descent, I figure it must be around four. A beer would be nice. I’m sure I can pick some up in the shop, and some snacks that will have to do for dinner tonight.
* * *
Later, when the sun has completely disappeared behind the dense tree tops, and I sit overlooking the water with a cold beer in my hand, a rustling to the left of the porch startles me. I’m so used to city noises—a constant buzz of traffic, road works, and endless construction—that now, when all around me an unfamiliar sort of quiet reigns, I start at the slightest ripple of sound.
“Hey.” Kay materializes in front of me. “Didn’t mean to give you a fright.” She sports that smile again, the one that indicates a friendly but don’t-mess-with-me attitude. In high school, she was three years above me, leaving us in decidedly different social circles. But I saw her around at West Waters sometimes, running on the sandy track on the other side of the lake, or—a more distant memory—just once, canoodling with Jim Straw behind a tree only a few feet away from our cabin. “You left this in the shop.” She holds up my wallet. “Figured you might want it back.”
“Oh, shoot.” I hadn’t even noticed it was missing. “Thank you so much.” She climbs the two porch stairs and holds it out to me. Gratefully, I pocket it. “The least I can do is offer you a beer.” It’s my first night here and I’m not really in the mood for small talk, but politeness always wins.
“I won’t say no to that.” She winks and parks her behind unceremoniously in the wicker chair next to mine. “How’s that sister of yours doing?”
She doesn’t waste any time asking the hard questions. I grab her a beer from the cool box next to my chair and offer it to her, avoiding her piercing glance.
“Dee and John never really mention her when they come here, you know? While they can’t shut up about Little Ella, fancy professor at Boston U. What is it again? Chemistry?”
“Biology,” I’m quick to correct. “Plant and microbial ecosystem ecology, to be precise.”
“Damn, sounds complicated.” Kay brings the bottle to her lips and drops her head back. “Is that why you came here? To study our shrubbery?” She gives that deep, rumbling laugh again.
I shake my head. “I’ve taken a leave of absence.”
“Sounds like a fussy name for a vacation to me.” With a few quick draughts, Kay empties half her bottle. “So how about Nina? Where is she hanging out these days.”
“Last I heard, she was in New Zealand, but we’re not really in touch that much.”
Kay nods as if she understands, as if my evasive answer is more than enough explanation. She drains the last of her beer and plants the bottle on the wooden table in front of her. “I’ll leave you in peace. Thanks for the beverage.” She rises with unexpected elegance. “You know the drill, right? Dial 911 for emergencies.” She grins. “If you were to need me personally, I’m still in the lodge behind the shop.” She gives me a quick nod of the head. “Night, night, Little Ella.” The last I see of her face, before she spins on her heel and leaves, is a crooked smirk.
The next morning over breakfast—a muesli bar bought at the shop—I gaze out over the water again. The stillness helps with the exercises Dr. Hakim taught me to clear my mind of ‘everything that doesn’t belong’. But it’s hard to block out the impending visit to my parents’ house. The place where I grew up. The place where I learned to express my frustration through deadly, stone-cold silence. I learned from the best: my mother.
A ripple catches in the water, cracking the surface. It’s only seven a.m. but perhaps Uncle Pete likes an early morning swim. Regular splashing sounds approach the landing. It’s so quiet, I can hear rhythmic intakes of breath as Kay swims through my field of vision with strong freestyle strokes. After reaching the edge of the lake, she stops briefly, her eyes barely peeking over the surface of the water.
Physical exercise will help, Dr. Hakim said numerous times. I estimate I could possibly make it to the other, shorter end of the lake without too much difficulty.
“Early bird?” Kay shouts at me from the water, her voice shattering the calmness of the morning.
In response, I shrug and slant my head. I’ve been awake for hours, but, like a good girl, I tried to stay in bed as long as I could possibly stand it.
Kay tilts her chin and ducks back under, swimming back to her side of the lake—although, I guess every side of the lake is hers.
* * *
My mother opens her arms to greet me, as though she has suddenly turned into a person who displays her love through hugging. The embrace is awkward—all stiff limbs and not knowing what to say. My father keeps his distance, just plants an almost-air kiss on my cheek.
“Have you settled in well?” my mother asks. “Do you like the new decor?” In my head, I hear: Is it really so much better than staying here with us?
“It’s wonderful.” I haven’t set foot in my parents’ living room for years. Always too busy to book a flight. Always finding the perfect excuse not to make the trip.
“How’s the rental?” Dad looks out of the window to the driveway. “You could have used the—”
“I know, Dad. It’s fine, really.” I’m already staying in their cabin and the last thing I want is to feel as though I owe them anything for using objects that belong to them.
“Coffee?” Mom asks. Their initial invitation was for lunch, but I couldn’t bear the thought of having to sit through a meal with them. I’m not ready for that just yet.
“Black, please.” Perhaps it’s strange that my own mother doesn’t know how I take my coffee.
“She drinks more than she eats these days,” Dad says as he takes a seat at the kitchen table, not offering any more explanation. He looks like a man who drinks just as much as he eats himself.
Already, I can’t stop myself from glancing at the clock—the same one they’ve had for decades, with such a deep, loud tick-tock that sometimes, when I was upstairs in my room and the house was quiet, I could have sworn I could hear it all the way through the ceiling.
When Mom deposits the cups and an apple cake on the table, I notice how bony her arms have become—and I know it’s because of me. If not politeness, then at least guilt will keep me here for the next few hours.
“Are you not having any?” I ask her after she has served me and Dad.
“I’m sure your father will have my share.” With that, the topic of conversation is firmly closed. My Dad emits a barely audible sigh at her well-worn remark.
I’m not particularly hungry myself, my stomach having tightened the instant I pulled up in the driveway, but I eat the piece of cake anyway, lest they think I suffer from a lack of appetite—and all the associations they could make in their minds.
“Are you feeling better?” Mom asks after the silence has stretched into minutes, only interrupted by the clinking sounds of our forks against the plates, and, apparently, has become unbearable even for her.
“Much.” And I know I should say more, but the words don’t come. I suppose that the reason why my family is so bad at starting conversations is because we’re so skilled at killing them.
Think happy thoughts, I tell myself. I didn’t get that nugget of wisdom from Dr. Hakim, I read it on the internet. On one of those wellness websites that endlessly recycles the same articles. So, I think of West Waters, of the stillness of the lake this morning, because honestly, I don’t have that much else to think of in that department.
“What will you do with your time?” Dad asks. “Wouldn’t it be better to stay occupied?”
I asked myself that same question over and over again before deciding to come here. But work was part of the problem. How I completely buried myself in it. Took on more seats on more committees than any member of faculty—despite finding committee work the biggest waste of time ever invented. But anything was good enough to keep me from going home to my house and the blackness that awaited me there.
“I’m sure she knows best, John,” my mother comes to my defense, and it strangely touches me—tears at the ready behind my eyes and everything. But she’s wrong, because if I had truly known better, I wouldn’t have done what I did.
“I won’t be teaching the first term,” I state, as though I’m facing a class of students instead of my parents. “I’m only slated to return in the New Year.”
Then, out of nowhere, my mother’s hand lands on my wrist. I flinch because I hadn’t expected it, but it only makes her claw her fingers deeper into my flesh. “If there’s anything—” she starts to say, but chokes up.
I swallow the tightness out of my throat—images of the splendor of West Waters flooding my brain—and put my hand on hers. It’s all I’ve got for now.
“I—uh, I’d like to get a picture from my old room,” I stammer, uncomfortable in the moment as it drags on.
“Sure.” Mom removes her hand and stares into her empty coffee cup.
“You still know the way, I hope,” Dad says in an overly cheerful voice that doesn’t fit the mood at all.
“Sure.” I push my chair back, my eyes fixed on the stairwell, and I can’t get out of there fast enough.
Once upstairs, the bedroom where I spent my youth is still semi-intact. The bed I slept in is still there, but numerous other objects have found their way in. Toaster ovens Dad has won at card games, old electrical appliances Mom can’t bear to throw out, a worn, deflated lilo we used to take to West Waters.
The picture I’m looking for is one of Nina and me, taken outside the cabin. I find it face-down on the corner of my former desk. Nina’s at least two heads taller than me, her hair straw-blond and scraggly—and always that glint of trouble in her eyes. She must be ten, still young enough to wrap an arm around my shoulders for a picture, and I’m seven. I am smiling broadly, one tooth missing, my hair much darker than my sister’s, and, despite the toothless grin, my glance much more demure.
I look around the room but the anticipated wave of nostalgia doesn’t come. Too much time has passed, too many new memories have erased the ones I made here. I wonder what Nina’s old room looks like these days, but instead of walking across the landing to find out, I take the stairs down, and hide the picture in my purse.
“We’re having Aunt Mary over for dinner this weekend,” Mom says when I re-enter the living room. “Will you co—”
“Don’t pressure her, Dee,” Dad cuts her off.
“It’s fine,” I quickly jump in to avoid further arguing about me. “I’ll come, but I should go now. I want to get to the store before it closes.”
Their goodbye is casual and quick—the goodbye to someone they’ll see again soon. This time it’s true, despite it being the exact same type of farewell we always exchange.
* * *
Back at West Waters, the sun is already bleeding out its last rays of the day over the lake, and it all weighs heavy on me again. Before putting the groceries away, I lean against the kitchen counter and dig up the picture I snatched from my childhood bedroom.
You were always the easy one. I hear my mother’s voice in my head. You never caused us trouble like your sister did. Dr. Hakim has taught me that there is absolutely no use in trying to guess what someone else might be thinking. I used to sit in his office three times a week, motionless, detached, and impossible to read. I’d listen to his baritone full of wisdom, stare at the liver spots on his hands as he rubbed a finger over his thin beard. It reminded me of a social communications class I took in college.
Our teacher Mrs. Kissinger, on whom I had a raging, silent crush, filmed us while we talked about ourselves for a few minutes. When she went over the videos in class, teaching us about body language and what it revealed about a person, she basically skipped my segment, stating that, in all her years of conducting this experiment, she’d never come across someone as non-verbally uncommunicative, the way I sat stock-still, my hands slipped safely underneath my thighs.
Nobody ever noticed.
A whistling sound outside shakes me out of my reverie, followed by Kay’s deep voice. “Knock, knock.”
I step outside to find her on my porch, moist hair drawn into a tight ponytail.
“Tonight’s my weekly drinking night at The Attic. I was wondering if you felt like tagging along. Reconnect with some folks from way back when.” She’s wearing dungarees, split low at the sides, over nothing more than a tank top.
Flummoxed, I push a strand of hair behind my ear. “Thanks, but not tonight.” Or ever.
“Are you sure, Little Ella? You look as if you could do with letting your hair down a bit.”
I give her a well-practiced smile. The exact same one I used for years on everyone I knew. It even works on myself sometimes. “Maybe next week,” I lie. “Still settling in and all that.”
A scrunch of the lips and a dip of the head, and she’s gone, her hands tucked deep in the front pockets of her dungarees, like a farmer leaving his field after a good day.
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