Excerpt from The Lake House
Claire excelled at three things: ballet, homework, and identifying all the ways there were to die in any given situation. Like now, on this boat. She couldn't stop thinking about how easy it would be to be knocked off the side, hit your head as you fell, and drown.
Less likely: being guillotined by a fishing line.
Also unlikely but still possible: being pierced by shrapnel if the engine exploded.
She fidgeted with her life jacket, touching the three buckles in rapid succession, until she felt reassured they were secure.
I hate boats, she decided.
She also hated airplanes, particularly the minuscule prop planes that felt as if they'd been assembled by a five-year-old with unfettered access to glue. That had been the other option for the trip to the Lake House -- itty-bitty prop plane. There were no roads.
"Not a fan of boats?" Reyva asked.
The driver started the engine.
"They're loud," Claire said, shouting to be heard. "Like a lawn mower mated with a wood chipper and had a hideous, gargling child."
Reyva's lips twitched as if she were considering smiling but didn't want to commit. Claire wasn't certain she'd seen her smile once yet. It didn't seem to be Reyva's thing.
As they shot across the lake, the boat slapped the water again and again. Each time, Claire bounced off her seat by a half inch. She wrapped one hand around the flimsy metal rail, trying not to make it obvious that she was holding on for dear life, especially in front of the two girls she'd just met and the boy driving the boat.
It'll be fun, her parents had said, much too cheerfully. Plus, think of how much it'll help your college applications! You'll learn new skills, have new experiences, and make new friends! Claire glanced at the other two girls. Friends. She never knew what to say to turn a person she'd just met into one of those, but since the boy driving the boat, Jack, seemed intent on increasing their speed beyond the limits of the speedometer, it wasn't first on her list to worry about.
Across the boat, not holding on at all, the other girl -- her name was Mariana, Claire remembered -- took a selfie as her hair blew in the wind. Lowering her phone, she shouted what sounded like, "Porpoise!"
"Can't be!" Claire shouted back. "There aren't any freshwater dolphins or toothed whales in Maine. Only Asia and South America." She winced at herself. Why did she always sound like she'd swallowed a textbook?
Mariana shouted louder. "Not porpoise! Porpoising! The way the boat is bouncing. It means the trim is set incorrectly. I can fix it." She tucked her phone into her back pocket as she stood up.
Claire squeezed the rail tighter.
"Sit down, please!" Jack called.
"You have to adjust the trim! Trim up!" Mariana called back to him, but she, to Claire's relief, sat down.
Jack adjusted the throttle, the engine changed pitch, and the boat's bouncing subsided. It sped more smoothly over the lake, and Claire relaxed her grip a little. "Hey, thanks!" he called to Mariana.
She flashed him a brilliant smile and tossed her hair, and Claire saw his eyes widen and cheeks tint pink. Good, she thought. He'll be staring at her now. One less person to notice how terrified she was.
"More useful than she looks," Reyva commented.
Claire wasn't sure what to say to that, so she nodded vaguely. She'd only known the two other girls for about an hour -- due to the weather, they were all arriving a day late. She was glad it had worked out that way. It was better than arriving late alone. She couldn't be "the new girl," singled out, if there were three of them. Reyva or Mariana could take the spotlight, while she blended into the wallpaper. It was the best possible outcome, really -- preferable to nearly any other Claire could currently imagine.
"Have you ever been to the Lake House?" Claire asked Reyva.
"Nope. My dad said it's been closed for years. He was so excited it reopened that he was practically giddy. He said it had always been his 'dearest wish' that I attend the beloved retreat where he forged so many precious memories and made lifelong friends -- so dear that he has literally never talked about it once."
"Both my parents went," Claire offered. "They said it was a formative experience."
Reyva laughed. "My dad tossed in that phrase a few times too. I told him I'm already formed."
"You didn't want to come?"
Reyva shrugged. "You?"
She'd told her parents of course she'd go. If they thought this was best, then yes, sign her up. There was nothing else to say since it was clear they'd already decided. Obviously, she would have rather stayed home for the summer, no matter how great it would look on college applications. She hadn't even arrived, and she was already out of her comfort zone. Surreptitiously, Claire touched the buckles on her life jacket again and thought longingly of her bedroom with all her books, and a door that closed everyone out. "I'm not sure 'want' is the right word. But it'll be great."
"Are you trying to convince me or yourself?"
Reyva fell silent.
Claire tried to enjoy the boat ride. Spray spat in her face, and it was refreshing, if she didn't think about how much bacteria could be in each drop. She made herself take a deep breath. The lake smelled like a fresh-mowed lawn, undercut with the aroma of dead fish.
The trip lasted another forty-five minutes, which officially made this the largest lake that Claire had ever been on. Finally, the boat slowed, angling itself to drift up against a dock, knocking into it. Jack hopped off, secured the lines, and waved at them all to hurry up. He held out his hand to help Mariana, but she jumped from the boat as if she hadn't noticed.
Claire waited until the other two had disembarked before she joined them, carrying her backpack, which was crammed so full that she felt unbalanced. She wouldn't have minded if Jack had offered his hand to help her, but he didn't. He was busy hauling Mariana's bags onto the dock. Reyva had a similar-sized backpack, but Mariana had a backpack plus two suitcases large enough to smuggle a couple of kindergartners inside them.
With another sunny smile at Jack, Mariana said, "I packed light."
"You and I have different definitions of that word," Reyva said.
"I only brought outfits with green in them, in honor of the woodland setting." Mariana waved her painted nails at the shore.
To Claire, Reyva said, "I can't tell if she's serious."
Following Mariana's wave, Claire confronted the forest for the first time. It was thick, populated mostly by white pine, spruce, hemlock, and sugar maples. The bark of the occasional white birch tree provided the only break in the lush, dark green. She couldn't see any hint of a house.
Jack pointed to the end of the dock, where a trail of packed dirt led in between the trees and bushes. "Follow that for a half mile, and it'll lead you right to the Lake House. The program director, Ms. Williams, will be there to greet you and introduce you to everyone."
As Jack untied the line, Mariana asked, "You're . . . not coming with us?"
"Lake House policy. Drop-off only." He hopped back onto the boat and revved the engine. "Stick to the path, and you'll be fine." To Claire, he said, "You won't need a life jacket." He held out his hand.
Feeling herself blush, Claire put down her backpack and unclipped her life jacket. She handed it back to the driver. Reyva and Mariana had already tossed theirs onto the boat. She hadn't wanted to take hers off until she was firmly on land, and technically the dock wasn't land. It was a wooden bridge to nowhere, supported by narrow poles that were continually weakened by partial submersion in water.
"Sorry," she muttered.
"Enjoy your summer," he said.
"Aw, you won't be stopping by? Even to say hi?" Mariana asked.
"Um . . . uh . . . I . . . that is, I don't . . ." A few of his words were lost as he pushed off from the dock and waved. "I'll let your parents know you made it safely. See you in August!"
He motored away from the shore.
"I think you scared him off," Reyva said.
Mariana shrugged. "Boys are fun to scare."
Reyva nodded. "It's not not true."
Claire stared after the girls. She wished she had that kind of confidence. Or any kind. She was fairly sure she hadn't said anything to Jack except her name and "Sorry." Oh well. He wasn't the one she'd be spending the summer with -- these girls were.
All of them faced the woods.
"You know, if this were a movie, the soundtrack would shift here," Mariana said. "Something orchestral, like John Williams. I'm thinking the Jurassic Park entrance theme, as we begin our grand adventure."
"Can't be that grand," Reyva said. "It's summer camp."
"'An enrichment retreat,'" Mariana corrected.
"Either way, no theme song."
But Mariana started humming the Jurassic Park theme anyway. As she hit the climax, she marched off the dock with her suitcases and backpack, and Claire hurried after her. She caught up with her at the start of the trail. Mariana had stopped and was staring at the trees with awe on her face. "I've been to Muir Woods and seen sequoias and redwoods, but there's something about this . . ."
"It's the quantity of trees," Claire said. "In national parks like Muir, every tree is studied and treasured, visited reverently. But here, there's miles and miles of forest, and I don't think anyone's ever taken the time to pay attention to each individual tree. They're nameless. Indistinguishable. It makes it all feel . . . overwhelmingly endless." According to her parents, this was an old-growth forest, which meant it had never been logged. Some of these trees, they said, were hundreds of years old. It had been an oddly intense conversation. Before this summer, she'd had no idea her parents had such strong feelings about the woods of Maine. They'd waxed poetic about it for at least an hour, before launching into their much-more-in-character spiel in which she was made to promise that she would never leave the trails or the grounds.
"So what you mean is, you can't see the trees for the forest?" Mariana asked, laughing. "Okay, that was a really bad joke. Sorry. Couldn't resist."
Reyva brushed past them. "We'll survive. As long as there are no puns."
Mariana followed her. "The tree-o sets off on an adventure!"
Reyva gave an exaggerated groan and picked up her pace, leading the way. She liked both of these girls already, which was a good start. Maybe, Claire thought, this will be okay. Maybe she could be a new Claire here, a never-before-seen version of herself who made friends easily and didn't freak out about every little thing. She'd come home radiating confidence and calm, leaving the old Claire behind, shed like a butterfly's chrysalis or a molted snakeskin. Hopefully more butterfly than snake, she thought. Certainly, that was what her parents wanted.
The woods closed quickly around them. Light filtered down between the branches, casting everything in a greenish hue. This late in the day, just before dusk, the shadows were thick in the underbrush. Following Reyva, Mariana lugged her suitcases up the path. Behind her Claire kept to the center of the trail and watched for poison ivy.
Birds chirped to one another, and the branches rustled with the weight of squirrels as they scampered from tree to tree. The trail wound around boulders, and she had to keep an eye on her footing. The dead needles on the trail were slick, and there were plenty of rocks and roots threatening to trip her. The air also tasted much more sour than she'd expected for the Great Outdoors. Shouldn't fresh air be, well, fresh? she thought.
"Anyone know exactly what we'll be doing here?" Claire asked. "There was no useful info online, not even a website." She'd done thorough searches, and not only was there no official website, but there was no chatter about the Lake House anywhere, which was weird -- or at least bad business for a camp that was trying to reopen. Of course, it didn't help that the name was so generic.
Claire reached out, ready to catch her if she'd tripped. "Are you okay?"
"There's no Wi-Fi," Mariana said. She'd dropped her suitcases and was holding her phone up toward the sky. "I didn't expect cell service out in the middle of nowhere, but with the house so near -- I should be able to see at least the name of their network, even if it's password protected."
"It's not necessary to password protect their network out here," Reyva said. "Unless they're worried about the bears stealing their bandwidth."
I forgot to worry about bears, Claire thought. Not that she thought they'd steal Wi-Fi, but she wasn't eager to encounter one. Or a mountain lion. Or a wolf. Maine had all three.
"True," Mariana said, picking up her suitcases and continuing on, "but we should be close enough to--"
In the lead, Reyva halted.
Claire and Mariana caught up to her and also halted.
Claire felt as if she were plummeting from a plane, or what she'd imagined that would feel like. Distantly, she heard the voices of the others, the cries and the gasps, as they all stared at the clearing with the house -- or what should have been the house.
Because the house was not there.
It had been consumed by fire.
Only a blackened shell remained.
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