Megan was thrilled to get a call from Charley right away. “Good news, Meg. The house needs work but it looks like it’s all cosmetic. It’s a wreck—people have definitely broken in and used the place. It’s trashed. And of course the furniture is dirty and rotting—but I can buy furniture and appliances in a flash. I’m going to get an electrician out here to check the wiring first. Also someone to haul trash. Those two things have to be done right away before I come back to the city.”
“Oh, Charley! We’ll repay you every dime!”
“That’s the least of my worries,” she said. Charley had been a minor star and had earned good money and invested wisely. She gulped back the fear that her earning days were over.
“Is it going to be a huge job?” Meg asked.
“Nope. Soap and water, paint, new furniture and appliances, new screening.”
“I wish I could help,” Megan said.
“I’m not going to do it myself,” Charley said with a laugh. “I’m going to hire people.”
“When will it be done? Will it be done soon?”
“It’ll be done by June,” she said. “It’ll probably be done before June but it’s really too cold to stay here right now. We need to wait for summer, Meg. The weather has to be warmer, especially for you. I’ll know more after I talk to a few people. I’ll be home in a few days.”
“Where are you staying?”
“There’s a motel just outside Waseka.”
“Did you look at the lodge?”
“Uh, no. For some strange reason I don’t feel like going to the lodge.”
“I promise you won’t see a familiar face, Charley!” Meg said.
“Just the same,” Charley said. “So, I don’t want you doing anything strenuous, but if you’re feeling good, you might start making a couple of lists. I haven’t looked through the cupboards yet but I’m sure most of the kitchenware is just too old and filthy to work for us. And there are no linens here. None. It looks like most of the pieces of wooden furniture are salvageable after some cleaning and polishing, but the armchairs, sofas and mattresses are out of here.”
“Okay!” Meg said. “I’ll do that! I’ll make lists!”
“Don’t get yourself too excited,” Charley cautioned. “You’re supposed to be resting and meditating and growing healthy cells.”
“I will!” she said. “I am! OMG, this is happening!”
“Oh, brother,” Charley said. “I hope this wasn’t a mistake...”
“It’s not! It’s happiness! Haven’t you heard that joy is good for illness? Joy and laughter and lake houses.”
“Take a nap,” Charley said, signing off.
Meg immediately started making lists and it filled her with optimism. That had to mean something good, she thought. She’d listed about twenty items when she stopped and instead went to the desk in the den and got out her stationery. She wanted to write to a lot of people who would probably either ignore her note or laugh and throw it away, but she was hell-bent.
In June we’re opening the lake house. Charley is doing most of the work and we’re going to spend the summer there. As you know, I’ve been somewhat under the weather.
She stopped long enough to laugh. But she thought it would be impolite to write, “As you know, I’m probably dying...”
She pressed on.
I’ve finished my chemo and bone marrow transplant and the only thing to do now is rest, relax, eat healthy food and heal. The lake is the perfect place to do that. We’d love it if you could join us. Just let me know the dates if you’re coming.
Just like old times,
She sent notes to Hope, Krista and Beverly even though Hope lived in Pennsylvania and hadn’t been back to Minnesota in at least five years and the only person Hope really kept in touch with was Grandma Berkey and occasionally Charley. Hope was a snob and loved having a famous cousin. Krista, unfortunately, was in a women’s prison, and the last time Megan heard from her, there was no parole in sight. And Beverly left the family for foster care the year after Bunny drowned. She went to live with a family better equipped to take care of her in the years following her trauma. Bunny had been Beverly’s best friend and they’d been together in that little rowboat when the storm rose up suddenly and Bunny was lost. Her foster family became her family of choice, though she did stay in touch with her mother, Jo. And Megan got Christmas cards with little notes. But the idea of Beverly going to the lake? After what had happened there? It was at best a very slim possibility.
Since it wasn’t likely any of them would come, Megan decided to reach out to Aunt Jo and Grandma Berkey. Aunt Jo would never go to the lake without an invitation from Louise and no one knew why or how Louise had that kind of power over her sister. They hadn’t been close since Bunny died. And Grandma Berkey was in a nursing home—someone would have to fetch her. With a little guilt and a sigh of resignation Megan thought that Charley would do that if she wanted it badly enough. Or John would. At the moment Meg had some very persuasive powers.
The only one she didn’t send a note to was her mother. She hadn’t even told Louise what they were doing. She’d deal with that later. But she did put stamps on her notes and took them out to the mailbox for the postman to pick up.
She told John what she’d done. “But I don’t think I’ll tell Charley,” she said.
“I can take a leave this summer,” John said. “I want us to be together.”
“Come on the weekends,” she said. “Let me stay with Charley during the week. Go to work. Your patients need you, you need them and you need to live a normal life.” Then she rubbed her cheek against his. “I might not be around forever, my darling. And I want you to carry on. In fact, the only thing I will ever ask of you is that you carry on.”
She put on some classical, cell-fortifying symphony music, reclined on the sofa in the den, took deep meditative breaths and pictured Lake Waseka as she remembered it, when it was at its best. She began to see them all as children, before the last year, six little blondes with bodies like brown sugar, freckled from the sun. Dirty, with calluses on their bare feet from not wearing shoes all summer, flushed and happy, gamy and healthy and strong. Giggling late into the muggy summer nights. Summer after summer. Everything that had nagged or bothered all year long disappeared as it was left behind. It was an escape from the real world. Grandma and the judge covered the expenses, from gas to groceries, so the material burdens were fewer and Lou and Jo were almost equals. This was significant because Aunt Jo worried about money all the time and it made her fretful. At the lake she was carefree. Happy. And there was almost nothing prettier than Aunt Jo when she was happy.
Their mothers became best friends again; there was laughter and what Grandma used to call shenanigans. They were fun. Young men passing in speedboats noticed them. Both Lou and Jo were attractive women. Lou was statuesque and bold and brazen while Jo was small and lovely and buxom and fragile. They were opposites who complemented each other. Lou often groused that Jo was the pretty one but it wasn’t exactly true. Lou could be pretty, too, when she was in a good mood, laughed and smiled. It was only the frown of envy and anger that made her plain.
At night they’d play cards or Scrabble and sometimes turn the radio up and dance—line dances and disco and boogie-woogie. All the little girls would dance, too. It was like having a party with your best friends every day of the summer. Then Lou and Jo would sleep together in Grandma’s big bed just like having a pajama party and whisper and laugh late into the night. There were eight bodies and five beds; when their husbands showed up on weekends they’d pile the kids on top of each other or make them take to the screened-in porch, but that big king-size bed of Grandma’s served them very well when it was just the two of them and the six kids.
Jo giggled more than Lou but Lou gave more advice than Jo. Whatever it was about their mysterious and complex relationship, it worked every summer. Lou would be her hardy self—capable and energetic and take-charge. And Aunt Jo would regress a little when around Lou, becoming her sweet, slightly incompetent self, but she would do whatever Lou suggested, which seemed to please them both tremendously. If you needed snuggling, like if you’d been stung by a bee, Aunt Jo was the one to go to. But if you wanted to try swimming across the lake, it was Lou who would coach and follow in the boat. Lou would teach the girls to dive; Jo would play dress-up with them. Between the two of them, no matter what problems they had all winter at home, every summer at the lake was a huge, raving, laughing, shining success. Before everything went so horribly wrong.
As Meg relaxed, she began to remember the time she fell apart. She lost her mind when she was fifteen. She’d been packing for the lake.
Carl, Meg’s father, stayed in the city to work and came to the lake on weekends. It was okay to ask him to bring something from home now and then, but he hated to be asked by everyone, all the time, week after week. He had a wife and three daughters, after all, and sometimes their requests for things that had to be searched out of closets and drawers frustrated him, made him cranky and not very helpful. So they tried to pack everything they needed for the summer. Meg tried hardest of all.
She could hear Charley and Mother fighting downstairs in the kitchen. As usual. Their voices would rise to screaming now and then; every year older Charley got, the more she swore at Mother. Mother swore, too, then denied she ever used a bad word. Whenever Megan heard them fight she renewed her own vow never to put herself through that useless exercise. Did Charley really think she was going to win against Mother? Did anyone ever win an argument with Louise?
It also meant no one was helping Bunny pack. Being the baby, Bunny tended to lack focus, expecting a big sister or her doting mother to step in and finish whatever she was doing. Bunny was spoiled. She was the only one Louise never yelled at. So, when someone gave her a chore, she didn’t take it seriously. She might pack a couple of things and then get sidetracked, dressing a doll or reading a book. Megan went down the hall to help her.
Bunny’s room was gone. Oh, the room was there, but the bed, dresser, toy chest, bookcase and Mary-had-a-little-lamb lamps were gone. Instead, Mother’s sewing machine was set up there. Also an ironing board, a trestle table covered with fabric and patterns, a sewing chest, a model-form and rocking chair. Megan felt disoriented. This was all wrong. She put a hand to her temple, feeling dizzy.
She walked around the upstairs hallway, stupidly looking for the missing room. All four bedrooms were accounted for—her parents’, hers, Charley’s and... But Bunny had no room.
“You’d better watch who you’re talking to, young lady,” Mother was shouting.
“Yeah? So what are you going to do about it? Send me away, maybe? Wouldn’t that be awful?” Charley shouted back.
“Maybe if you’d mind your manners, you’d find life here could be pleasant. Not to mention plentiful!”
Meg walked into the kitchen. Charley had changed. Megan stared at her, dazed. Who was this? Her hair was long, straight and stringy, a band tied around her head. She was so skinny, like a toothpick. Her clothes were terrible—torn and patched jeans, some kind of symbol sewn onto her little butt, and you could see her bra right through the gauzy shirt that only accentuated how flat her chest was. Her bare feet were filthy and her cheeks sunken. And the rage on her face was astonishing. Megan had seen Charley mad before, but nothing like this.
Louise had also changed. She was heavier, her hair very gray, and her face was deeply lined. Her skin was especially crepey around her eyes and under her chin. She looked like she’d been awake for a year. Her down-turned mouth was grim...but then it was usually grim when she wasn’t having her way.
“Where’s Bunny?” Meg asked.
They stopped fighting and turned to look at her.
“Where’s her room? Her stuff?”
They gaped at her. A look of absolute horror crossed Louise’s face.
“What’s going on?” Megan asked. “Where’s Bunny? You know, Mary Verna?”
“That’s not funny, Meg,” Louise said.
“About Bunny,” Charley said.
“Where is she?” Megan demanded, tears gathering on her face, her voice shaky. She was confused and frightened.
“She’s dead and you know it!” Charley snapped.
Louise didn’t say anything. They stood in the kitchen in heavy silence, looking at each other. Then Megan noticed the kitchen was just a little different and everyone, including herself, was wearing clothes she hadn’t seen before. Meg grabbed her stomach like she was going to be sick and made a loud, moaning noise. “Dead? No! Where’s Bunny really? Where?”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Charley swore, whirling around and presenting her back in disgust. But Louise got a strange look in her eyes and walked very slowly toward Megan as though she might bolt like a frightened fawn if anyone made any quick moves.
Megan’s ears were ringing so that it sounded like her mother was talking into a tin can when she said, “Charlene, please call Dr. Sloan.” Then Megan started screaming and running through the house, calling out to Bunny. She began tearing things apart, breaking things, ripping things off the walls, out of closets, pulling whole bureau drawers out and letting them fall upside down on the floor, looking for evidence of Bunny somewhere, finding none.
The police and ambulance came, someone gave her a shot, the world became very slow and quiet. The only sound was whimpering. Her own whimpering.
Megan had begun packing to go to the lake on May 8, 1989, and woke up a year later on May 12, 1990, without remembering a single thing. It was as though a slice was taken out of her brain. She spent two weeks in the hospital being treated for what the family doctor and the hospital psychiatrist decided to call a nervous breakdown. Later, when Megan became an RN, she recognized it as a psychotic break due to the psychological trauma of the past year. Bunny drowned, Charley was sent away to have and give up her baby, the family had become completely estranged. The family that had spent every summer, holiday and most Sunday afternoons together was gone.
Charley and Louise stopped fighting that summer. At least out loud. Instead, the summer was spent keeping Megan calm and remembering things to her. They all took turns—Louise and Carl and Charley. Sometimes Grandma Berkey and the judge came to visit, but the judge mainly grumbled that there weren’t any screws loose on his side of the family, so he could only guess where all this psychiatry bullshit was coming from.
At the end of that summer, Charley took her leave. “Once I get a little settled in the dorm, I’ll call you. I promise,” she told Meg.
“Oh, Charley, can’t you go to college around here?” Meg wept. “I can’t live here without you! Can’t you go to the university and live at home?”
“It’ll be better here without me—no more fighting, yelling, swearing, threatening...”
“But what if you get hurt or something? Or what if I need you? And you’re all the way in California?”
“If you need me, I’ll come if I can. I think my being here... I think it’s made you sick and made you forget.”
“No! That can’t be the reason! Oh, Charley, I just lost Bunny! I can’t lose you, too. Please don’t go!”
“I have to, Meg. I hate her and she hates me.” She took a deep breath and squeezed Meg’s hands. “I’ll never forgive her. Them,” she said, for it was the judge who came to Louise’s aid when she said she wanted to send Charley away to have her baby. Carl was not convinced Charley should have to go but he didn’t argue with Louise and the judge. “And as soon as I can, I’m going to start looking for my baby. Here,” she said, handing Megan a cigar box filled with letters.
“It’s every letter you wrote me while I was in Florida. It will help you remember. You wrote me almost every day, Meggie. I think you kept me alive.”
“But I can’t keep you home!”
Her lips formed the word, but Megan didn’t hear the sound. “No.”
Charley didn’t cry. Not when they talked about their dead sister, her lost baby or leaving home. Megan never asked but had always wondered if she knew it was a trait she seemed to share with Louise.
When Charley was away that first year, Meg spent a lot of time rereading her letters to her sister. The chronology of a year she couldn’t remember. Some of the letters were smeary with tearstains that Meg assumed must have been her own. It was hard to imagine Charley crying, even in private, she was so strong. Meg had written about the quiet of the house, about how their father seemed to grieve in deep silence and withdraw further and further inside himself, no match for Louise’s insistent and relentless anger. Louise had always been the more talkative of the two, but Carl no longer even responded with his usual grunts and humphs. She had written about missing Bunny but also missing her cousins—the only one she ever saw was Hope and it was as though Hope didn’t know her anymore.
“I’m pretty sure no one has ever been this lonely,” she wrote in one of her letters to Charley. And in the margin Charley had scribbled, “Except me!”
* * *
Charley called from Lake Waseka every day with good news and then better news. She went into the biggest real estate office in the nearest big town, Brainerd, and asked if they could help her find a competent decorator and a crew to empty the lake house of old furniture and trash. The decorator, Melissa Stewart, recognized Charley from television and they shared instant rapport.
While the junk was removed, Charley and Melissa discussed the interior design. She wasn’t going to completely redecorate the place; she wanted it spruced up, painted, furnished and restored. They talked colors, appliances, mattresses and rugs. Melissa said she could text Charley pictures and make purchases on her approval.
Charley went again to Brainerd and bought new appliances, even though the electrician hadn’t checked the wiring yet. They had to be purchased, anyway, didn’t they? And luck was on her side. The very next day the electrician spent six hours checking the house. He wanted to make a few repairs, put in a new fuse box, replace some switches and outlets, and they’d be good to go.
Megan was so excited at the reported progress she started pulling out dishes and glasses she could spare to be taken to the lake. The kitchen counter was full of the stuff. She’d barely begun when she got tired. Bone tired. Excruciatingly tired. She wanted to lie down and thought for a second about just lying on the kitchen floor. No one had adequately prepared her for the power of the fatigue. Cancer is a pain in the ass, she thought.
She’d only rested for a few minutes when the sound of her doorbell brought her back to reality. All the way back—it was her mother. That, with the fatigue, turned her cranky.
When Louise made an unannounced visit in the middle of the day, it could only mean one thing. Drama. But, in a way, Meg had been expecting this. She thought Louise might get wind of the reunion she was planning even though it was destined to fail.
“Mother. Funny enough, I was just thinking about you.”
Louise flapped the small envelope addressed to Grandma Berkey. The invitation Megan had sent, inviting her to come to the lake. “Have you lost your mind? Or does it give you such great pleasure to hurt me like this?”
“Come in, Mother. Please. Let me get you something to drink. Another of what you’ve recently had?”
Louise made a wincing gesture. “It’s my bridge day. We had wine with lunch. Otherwise, as you know, I rarely drink.”
“Oh, really? Is that so?” Meg said sarcastically. “So? What’s the problem?” she asked, leaving her mother to stand in the doorway as she made her way slowly back to the den. She needed to sit down. She was weak. And bald. And thin as a noodle. You’d think the sight of her wasting body would intimidate Louise, make her think about someone besides herself.
“Do you have any idea how much trouble Grandma is when someone puts an idea like—”
“Sit down, Mother,” Megan said softly. “The doctor said it’s very bad for my cells when you stand over me, talking down at me. It’s upsetting.”
“Oh,” Louise said, taking a seat. And instantly she picked up where she left off. “You can’t imagine how difficult and obstinate and tiresome Grandma is when she’s got some idea—”
“Sure I can,” Megan said. “I’ve heard her rant for years. What’s new?”
“What’s new is that now she wants to go to the lake!” Louise barked.
“Well, I invited her. Why don’t you bring her?” Meg asked this as though she had forgotten that Louise had not gone to the lake in almost twenty-seven years.
Louise’s lips thinned and she leaned stiffly back in the chair. Megan could tell she was grinding her teeth. “Just what are you trying to prove?” she asked very sternly.
Megan took a deep breath. Then she sighed. “Nothing, Mother. I just want to go back to the lake. I loved the lake...”
“The lake that tore our family apart? The lake that swallowed up your baby sister? The lake that—”
“The last place any of us loved each other?” Megan asked, voice escalating to match Louise’s.
They were silent for a long moment. “This is ridiculous,” Louise said, rising as if to leave Meg’s house. Or, more likely, rising so that Meg could call her back and apologize.
“No, this actually makes sense. I’ll tell you what’s ridiculous—that five years ago when John and I wanted to go to a lake up north for a vacation, we rented a house on a different lake so that your feelings wouldn’t be hurt...when in fact we have a wonderful lake house in the family! And what’s even more ridiculous is that no one ever questioned the sanity of that. That’s what’s crazy.”
“Well, Megan, I can see I’ll have no success in discussing this issue with you. I was trying to spare you, but you’re going to do what you’re going to do.”
Spare herself, she meant. Meg knew Louise had never tried to spare anyone anything in her life. Louise dished it out but she didn’t take it well.
“I have nothing further to say.”
Hah! A trap! Louise never ran out of arguments! “Fine. Good,” Meg said.
“If you’re going to go, you’re going to go.”
“I just hope I live long enough to go,” Megan said.
“You’ve been trying to hurt me with your impending death for four long years now, Meggie. And I don’t think I have any fight left in me,” Louise said.
“Mother, darling, you don’t have to fight. You just like to. I have to.”
“Oh, God, you never quit. You’ve become so mean-spirited.”
“And cranky. And foulmouthed, too. This cancer shit’s a bummer. But don’t worry, Mother. I’ll probably quit before you do.”
“I’m leaving. I can’t take any more.”
“Drive carefully, will you? That wine you had at bridge smells a lot like bourbon.”
Louise lifted her chin stoically. She headed for the door.
“Unreal,” Megan muttered as she wearily rose to follow Louise to the door. “You act like you’re afraid we’re going to finally find that goddamn body buried under the porch.”
Louise was brought up short with a gasp. Her skin took on an ashen pallor and she actually swooned slightly, leaning against the door. Then she slowly collected herself and left.