At the end of the season–ending in August for some, late September for others–people left in droves so that the town felt like an over-inflated balloon losing its shape. Then finding a new one. The outward flow left the population at a measly 897, a number that jumped to about 1300 via magic arithmetic each summer. They noted the changes each summer and fall, then soon readjusted. Tim Melton, age 9, didn’t give it a lot of thought but found himself counting the days until they all disappeared. Then he could get back to his own business without all the “foreigners” interfering.
Once it had been a nondescript wayside requiring three turns off I-75. The road might be missed if you didn’t pay attention to the small green and white sign at the last turn. Tattler Falls had been voted one of the “Twenty Most Popular Great Lakes Tourist Spots” in the state’s tourism magazine. That was in 1978. The only reason it hadn’t grown a lot more is that there were very conservative zoning laws set in place by Garver T. “Tommy” Melton, Tim’s grandfather, and his crew back in 1950. Little had been altered despite occasional heated debates so there was only so much land to go around. The developers compensated for that by building upwards as much as possible. The fancier houses and a couple of hotels poked above the treeline and were eventually tolerated like warty growths.
Almost two-thirds of the year-around residents were third generation or more. They weren’t well-off but held the power because they held the land. Everybody feared a last family member dying off, as who would the will leave their land to? Often enough, it was bequeathed to friends or the Congregational church or the newer (1989) wildlife refuge at the far edge of town. It was a safety feature, something that folks had dreamed up back when Tommy ran things, more or less. Now he was faltering and staving off a nursing home. Tim liked to visit with him since he could still play a mean game of slap jack from his wheelchair. He also told him interesting things about the woods and lake. Historical stuff.
Tim, like his grandfather, wanted to run things but he was still in training. He knew he was smart but apparently not smart enough to get everything he wanted when he wanted it. Patience was not something he favored, as his mother said, but something he would eventually find.
He pulled up to their long oak table.
“Gosh, I don’t want chicken again, Mom. I want some yummy grilled steak, the ones you bought today.”
He poked at the plump piece of white breast meat that was huddled between mashed potatoes and canned peas. He hated canned peas. Who had come up with that idea? He might have to learn to cook one day.
“Sorry, the steaks are for tomorrow when everyone comes for our end-of-season party. As you well know. Oh, and Gus will be coming. I think.” His mother raised one arched eyebrow high, her mouth pulled into a crooked shape.
“Uuuh.” His mouth was stuffed with potatoes or he might have said ‘ugh.’ Gus was now thirteen and a menace. That’s what Gus’ dad called him when he got mad. Tim could have told him that long ago. But they’d grown up together; he used to be like a big brother. “Nice. I like the end-of-season parties.”
“I do, too, son. Except for all the preparations!”
He studied his mother from under his longish hair and worked on the chicken. Lynne, thirty-six, married to Adam, his dad. Only his dad was downstate working on some bridge construction for a couple more weeks. He was gone more than Tim liked. But his mom was a great one to have around in more ways than he’d admit in public. He peeked up at her. She looked pretty, too, in her blue and green plaid blouse and her reddish-blonde hair held back with a golden headband. Her freckles had been shared with him.
Just this morning she had gone out in the canoe with him. It was early with translucent fair skies. Since so many had left, the water was still and smooth near land’s edge. Quietness floated over the water and them. They watched eagles and red-tailed hawks dip and soar. She had taken pictures, her favorite thing besides fishing and her family.
“I like how empty it feels again. How things go back to the right places,” he said.
“You always say that–always so serious.” The words lit up in light laughter. “I know what you mean. We all do. Like everything is jostled around when the summer people come, things feel close and tight, even the trees feel off-kilter.”
Tim nodded and attacked the whole piece of chicken, put one end of it into his mouth and bit hard before she frowned at him. It tasted good and he kept nibbling away.
“I wish your dad was back,” she said, then bent over and kissed his forehead so softly he barely felt it. But he did feel it and this time did not complain.
“Me, too. He should be here for the party.” It came out as resentful but he couldn’t help it. He was usually scolded for being disrespectful but this time she didn’t say respond.
He finished his meal and carried the plate to the sink. His mom was humming to herself, counting the days until Adam returned–three–and thinking over her “To Do list” for the last big cook-out. If only Adam could be there. He’d been gone most of the summer. Tim saw her face set itself to the Things aren’t easy but I will get on with it and be fine mode.
“Is Charlene Young going to be there? At the party?”
She turned to look at him, her hands in mid-air and dripping soapy water. “I think so, yes, she said she’ll try to make it. You remember to be nice to her, especially.”
Tim nodded, then left the kitchen and picked up his Frisbee. He stepped into their wide enclosed porch, pushed open the screen door and let it slam, heard his mom yell after him to “let it go easy not so hard!” He ran down the steps and stood gazing out over the lake. The air was laced with damp pine, chilly water, rich earth and far off winter smells. He took it all into himself like a powerful energy needed to recharge. There was a rustling movement to his left and Gator, their half-Lab, half-shepherd, dashed out of thick bushes and jumped up on him, eager to play. He threw the disc to Gator but thought about Charlene and June 21, then his dad being gone and for a moment he forgot he was happy.
It had been a perfect summer day. Tim and Missy had taken the rowboat out earlier and fished a little with homemade poles. Then they went swimming by her big old cabin.
“I can out-swim you any day!” She swam out to the floating dock.
He took off after her. They were neck-and-neck until the last few feet when he burst ahead and he called it.
Missy dunked him and they tussled in the water, gulping some lake, coughing and laughing. She dove deep and he followed, grabbing her toes. The plants waved at them as they torpedoed by. Fish grazed their legs and arms. They resurfaced, pulled themselves up, caught their breath as they leaned back.
“I’m getting my hair cut before school.” She pushed it back from her face now, long dark strands catching on chin and nose.
“So? We always get our hair cut for school. I don’t know why. I’d rather keep mine long.”
“No, I mean, I’m getting it cut really short. Like this.” She pulled the wet mass back so it looked like her head was a seal’s or a wet puppy’s.
Tim tilted his head, wiggling his index finger in his ear to get out the water. “That’s too short.”
“I need something new.”
“Because…I want to, because…it will look better shorter.”
“That’s stupid. You’re not even ten. You don’t have to change anything. Or ever.”
Missy scooted to middle of the slick wood surface and brought her knees to her chin. “You can change for no good reason. Or for fun.”
“Yeah, I guess do what you want.” He looked at her sideways. “Makes me think about Annie Young.” He’d wanted to talk about Annie for once.
Missy’s head whipped around. “Annie? Why? Anyway, I’m not sure she’s having fun. You’re joking, right?”
“Maybe she’s having fun her own way but not such a great way. We hear stuff and I wonder.”
Missy sighed and stretched out white, bony legs. “I know. I mean, we live in Tattler Falls! Not the humongous city. How can she get that stuff? She’s just fifteen…”
“Dad says drugs just travel from downstate and before you know it, it infects all the best places and people. I agree. It’s awful when nobody needs that stuff for anything good. Ridiculous!”
Missy shivered. “It’s gross. It’s spooky, too. If it can get to Annie, who’s next?”
“It won’t get us, right?”
Tim leaned toward her, shoulders making contact for a second, then kicked the water hard. They dove in one after the other. Missy won the race to shore by a length. They ambled ashore talking about playing badminton when Missy’s mom rushed out with big towels and wrapped them up. She burst into tears.
“Come in the house, kids, okay? I have bad news about Annie Young.”
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a smart ass,” Gus said, toothpick bouncing between his lips.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Tim tossed a flat stone into the water and watched it skip.
“Well, then keep it to yourself.” He smacked Tim on the back so it stung.
“All I said was–‘
“I heard you the first time. You told Missy you wondered where I was the afternoon Annie died. Everybody knows I was out on the dirt bike. I get so sick of everyone pointing their fingers at me!”
The lake rippled as the rock punctured the calm, burnished water. Dusk was gathering about the trees, and the sunset had left its afterglow upon the lake’s mirrored surface. Tim wished Gus would go away. He could smell the steaks about ready. There was a bonfire and he knew Missy and the others were finding good spots. But Gus had called him down to water’s edge.
“I’m going soon, anyway.” Gus picked up a knobby stick and tossed it into the lake where it floated away.
“What? Where to?”
“Maybe Ohio. My dad’s parents. I need a breather. Just because I like weed and tried a little meth…I’m good now but mom and dad…” He turned Tim around to face him, then drew himself up before plunging in. “Look, I of course saw Annie that day. We were…more than friends, so I thought. That’s what I told the cops, too. I saw her with Jubal– they were on his BMW–when I headed to the trail. I knew Jubal was up to no good but Annie didn’t listen to me… So when I heard about the crash, I was as shocked as anybody, I was freaked out if you want to know the truth because I told her to stay away from him. He’s totally no good. So now he’s in jail after they found the drugs and good riddance. But Annie!” He covered his eyes, then stared into the distance. “I need to get out of here.”
Tim felt frozen to the stony earth. “Why are you telling me all this?”
Gus picked up a rock and threw it so hard Tim couldn’t see where it arced in the fading light. Laughter and loud voices overtook the soft shusshshusshshussh of lapping waves. Tim felt himself drift a moment. It would get windier soon, rain, then snow. He knew the fire was blazing and wished Missy would come down with some of their friends.
“I’m not sure, buddy. You’re pretty smart and I guess I thought you’d understand but maybe you’re too much of a kid, still. Yeah, you’re just a runty, snotty-nosed kid.” He backed away, then turned toward the house and rich smells of food and the bonfire. Stopped.
Tim watched the older boy’s face as the orange glow of the flames fell upon his face. Gus used to look so much bigger. Now he just looked worn out, a lot skinnier. Was it that meth drug or was it Annie leaving? Okay, the truth: overdose and death.
“But I kinda get it. You want to leave that day behind. Maybe the whole summer. And Ohio might have an answer…or something.” Tim dug the heel of his shoe into the dirt and rocks. “I wish that day had never happened, too, it’s like a nightmare took over our town and nothing is really the same.”
He was afraid he was going to let it jump out, the sharp-edged sadness, the fear that had crept into his life. New worries about his dad going so far away for work; why couldn’t he stay home? His mom feeling lonely sometimes, he could just tell. The summer people could come and go as they pleased, make things better or worse for the rest of them. But this was their own place, and it had been so right and good for so long. It was home. There were new things every year Tim didn’t understand. Or even want to. And this summer had been the hardest so far with Annie being taken.
Gus didn’t look at Tim but hung his arm loosely around the younger boy’s shoulders. “Yep, you’re a genius. A decent kid.” They started to walk back.
“Gus, I never told anyone, but the week Annie’s funeral took place? Her mom, Charlotte, saw me in town and she put her arms around me, squashed me so tight I thought I was going to choke. It scared me. All I could smell for hours was her perfume, something way too sweet…I’ll never forget it!”
“Yeah, that’s grief, buddy, that killer hug. I don’t know much about perfume yet.”
Missy saw them then and trotted down to grab onto him as Gus drifted into the boisterous, milling group. Tim thought for sure he was seeing things when his father’s face moved out of the shadows and into the beautiful October firelight but no, he was back. He had come home early, just for the party. Just for them. Tim started running, Missy calling after him to wait up.