By Paula Boon
CHAPTER 1: Anna
My life was fine before I met Crystal. I knew who I was and where I was headed, and I never really thought about why. Okay, it wasn’t exciting or inspired. There wasn’t much whimsy or delight. But it was fine.
Crystal changed everything. For a few precious weeks, she turned the white light of my world into rainbows. With her, I looked at things more closely, felt more deeply, and started to be more honest with myself and others.
That was before everything went wrong. Afterwards I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know if I could trust anything she had said or done – or, in fact, if I could trust myself.
I suppose I should go back to the beginning, to that first flash of light from across the bay.
Dad, Becky and I had been at the cottage for a few days and were falling into our usual summer routines. Mom was still working in the city, just coming up on weekends until her holidays began in the middle of August.
Our cottage is tiny and old. Ancient, really. People say that with its white paint and red trim it looks like a dollhouse from the water. The whole thing has this great musty, damp-wood smell I associate with summer.
Inside, its faded blue walls are made of a material that gives way like cardboard when you push on it. Scratched, cracked linoleum covers the floor throughout, with steel wool shoved down the edges to keep the mice out.
Separating the four rooms are white curtains with orange, green, yellow and brown polka dots instead of doors. When I was small, I used to love falling asleep to the glow of light and murmur of my parents’ voices through the bedroom curtain. It was so different from sleeping alone behind solid walls in the city.
All the furniture, bedding and dishes came with the cottage when my parents bought it 20 years ago. The story is that the previous owners said it was so old and mismatched they had no use for it. I’m glad; there’s something comforting about being surrounded by so much history. ‘Who else has drunk from this mug?’ I’ll sometimes wonder. Or, ‘Whose worn clothes went into the patches in this quilt?’
On the down side, the building itself always tilts one way or the other, depending on how the frost heaves in the spring, and sometimes certain windows won’t open. It has electricity, but the wiring is so sketchy Dad often mutters about how it’ll just burn down some day and that won’t be a bad thing.
As for plumbing… well, there is a toilet, but we have to throw toilet paper in the garbage can, and we only flush when we absolutely have to. I’ve seen signs in similar cottage bathrooms that say, ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, wash it down.’ My mother thinks that rhyme is crude.
All this means that Dad has to spend a fair amount of energy just keeping the place standing for one more summer. The rest of the time he likes to stretch out on the hammock or the dock to read his stacks of mysteries and magazines.
Becky generally takes off every afternoon with some other 16-year-olds from around the lake. Or at least, that’s what she tells Dad. I know that one of her guy friends has ID saying he’s 19. She often stays out until the early hours of the morning – except when Mom’s here, of course.
And me? I just sort of hang out.
The funny thing about Echo Lake is that although it’s known for its cottage country social scene, somehow no one else seems to have kids my age. Little kids outnumber the minnows and older teenagers are as common as the pike our neighbour Mr. Garcia keeps hauling out of the lake, but I’m the only 14-year-old for miles.
To be honest, this is a handy excuse to have ready when people comment on how much time I spend alone. It’s more noticeable in the summer because during the school year I keep myself busy with homework when I’m not at band rehearsals or meetings for all the clubs I’m in.
It’s actually quite a relief to spend time on my own by the lake, reading a lot, floating around on an air mattress and going for hikes in the woods. People just assume if I’m not with other kids I must be lonely.
I guess they wouldn’t be reassured to hear that I don’t really have friends at home, either. I have lots of acquaintances, but real friendship has eluded me. Let’s just say that when my debating club has to drive somewhere for a meet, everyone else makes car arrangements with their friends and then I fill in whatever empty spaces remain. I’m included in the conversation, and it’s fun, but when we get there, that’s where it ends.
In some ways I feel like I’m younger than all my classmates, more naive or something. I identify with the spunky heroines of old movies and books, like Anne of Green Gables and Maria from the Sound of Music, but I know that’s flaky. Come to think of it, I don’t have the sense that I will be any different in a few years, so I guess I don’t feel younger so much as different — like I belong to another species.
I’m just not interested in partying and putting on makeup and chasing boys. I know next to nothing about the popular music scene, and let me tell you, admitting that is social suicide for a 14-year-old. Usually I just nod and smile and pretend I know what people at school are talking about.
I’m your basic browner. I spend most of my time and energy keeping my teachers and parents happy. Until I met Crystal, it didn’t occur to me there was any other reason for existing.
Anyway, Dad and Becky and I had opened the cottage a few days before and I was stretched out on my air mattress, enjoying the sun on my skin. When I’m lying out there like that, alone, I can almost feel pretty. My clunky glasses are hidden away inside a shoe on the dock, my wet hair actually lies somewhat flat, and I can convince myself that I’m not scrawny, but rather slim and svelte.
I like to imagine I’m on the verge of discovery, like Audrey Hepburn in that movie where she starts off as a frumpy bookstore clerk and ends up being whisked off to Paris to be a fashion model. They’d need pretty thick makeup to make my skin look smooth, but I can forget that when I’m drifting on Echo Lake.
When I half-opened my eyes to survey the shore, I saw a strange flicker of light from the old Earl place.
I have to explain that the Earl place, three doors over from our cottage, has been abandoned for years. There are only four cottages in our bay because half of it is owned by the Portingtons, who have their family compound at the far side. Our cottage is next to their property, which means that although we only have a tiny waterfront of our own, there are hundreds of feet of untouched shoreline beside us, along with acres of bush behind. It’s ideal for wandering undisturbed.
On the other side of us are the Garcia and Halliday families’ summer homes. They are both quite new and fancy but hardly ever used. Their owners only come up north for occasional weekends, and the rest of the summer the buildings sit there like showpieces.
The Earl family, whose land stretches all the way to the mouth of the bay, used to spend the entire summer at their cottage, like we do. My parents say that stopped 10 or 15 years ago. It seems like no one has even checked on it for at least five. It’s pretty much falling apart.
Most of the time we have the bay to ourselves, so when I saw this funny sparkle from the Earl place, I was intrigued, to say the least. I paddled to the dock for my hated glasses so I could get a better look. Everything further than five feet away is blurry without them.
Sunshine reflecting off the water made me wonder if I had been seeing things. But no, there it was again, a quick but intense burst, like a tiny lighthouse signal.
I decided to investigate.
In the darkened bedroom I share with Becky, I changed into yesterday’s faded t-shirt and shorts. She kept snoring on the bottom bunk; 11 a.m. is still the break of dawn as far as Becky is concerned. Dad was reading on the porch.
“I’m off for a walk,” I said as I passed by.
“Okay, Anna.” He didn’t look up.
Instead of taking the road, I headed for the water. Crossing the Garcias’ and Hallidays’ trucked-in sand beaches, I marveled once again at the way they transplanted neat, trim, city-like yards to a lakeside in Muskoka. Imagine paying a maintenance man so that when you left your inch-high, perfectly green lawn at home you could look out over another one in cottage country.
At the boundary with the Earls’ property the undergrowth became thick, so I headed down to the shore and stepped into the water, carrying my sandals. Branches from a pine tree rooted right beside the lake jutted out, screening the next cottage from view. Perfect cover, I thought.
I tried to dismiss thoughts of slick leeches attaching themselves to my toes as I separated two prickly boughs and peeked between them. At first the Earl place looked the same: tiny and white like our cottage, but with light blue-grey trim and one big window occupying the most of the lake side.
I saw the light glint again, not off the windows themselves, but… what was different? I leaned forward to get a better look, and at that moment a tall, slim woman with chin-length, straight blonde hair and a flowy white dress came to the front door. It was Crystal.
About this story
This was the first book-length manuscript I ever completed. The setting was inspired by my family’s cottage on Peninsula Lake in Huntsville.