The Secrets of Lake Road by Karen Katchur is a chilling debut about a seven-year-old girl who goes missing from a summer town (available August 4, 2015).
Jo has been hiding the truth about her role in her high school boyfriend's drowning for sixteen years. Every summer, she drops her children off with her mother at the lakeside community where she spent summers growing up, but cannot bear to stay herself; everything about the lake reminds her of the guilt she feels. For her daughter Caroline, however, the lake is a precious world apart; its familiarity and sameness comforts her every year despite the changes in her life outside its bounds. At twelve years old and caught between childhood and adolescence, she longs to win her mother's love and doesn't understand why Jo keeps running away.
Then seven-year-old Sara Starr goes missing from the community beach. Rescue workers fail to uncover any sign of her—but instead dredge up the bones Jo hoped would never be discovered, shattering the quiet lakeside community's tranquility. Caroline was one of the last people to see Sara alive on the beach, and feels responsible for her disappearance. She takes it upon herself to figure out what happened to the little girl. As Caroline searches for Sara, she uncovers the secrets her mother has been hiding, unraveling the very foundation of everything she knows about herself and her family.
No one touched the bottom of the lake and lived. If you were lucky, you’d surface wide-eyed and frantic, babbling at the darkness, the thickness of what lay below. If you were unlucky, underwater recovery dragged the lake for your body.
As Caroline unpacked her duffel bag in the small bedroom where she had slept every summer since she could remember, she wondered who would be brave or stupid enough to try to touch bottom this summer.
The cabin door to The Pop-Inn creaked open and closed with a bang. Caroline rushed to the window to see who it was. A warm breeze blew, carrying the dampness of the lake and the smell of a barbecue. The leaves rustled in the hundred-year-old trees. She looked down the dirt road that led into the colony, catching her older brother, Johnny, pass by. If he’d noticed her watching, he pretended he hadn’t. He wasn’t five steps away when he lit a cigarette, a habit he perpetuated at the lake but never at home. Rules at the lake were lax if they existed at all.
He blew smoke from his lips and whipped his head to the side, sweeping the wavy bangs from his eyes. He walked down the hill with a swagger that was uniquely his, cool and a little cocky, but with enough insecurity that hinted at a sensitive side and, as much as she hated to admit it, a certain charm.
Caroline hoped Gram didn’t see the cigarette. “No smoking in front of Gram,” their mother had warned repeatedly during the three-hour drive from their home in New Jersey to the lake. But at sixteen-years-old, Johnny always did what Johnny wanted to do, no matter what anyone said. In a way she believed their mother was trying to protect Johnny from Gram’s wrath, a disposition Gram reserved solely for Caroline’s mother, but apparently her mother was as oblivious to that fact as she was to other things, in Caroline’s opinion.
She returned to unpacking, putting clothes into the dresser she and Gram had painted white last summer. Her mother walked into the room and handed her clean sheets. While she made up the bed, her mother leaned against the doorjamb with a far-off look in her eyes. Her long dark hair cast shadows in the hollows of her cheeks, making her face appear gaunt, haunted.
The way her mother looked, her expression, reminded Caroline of the lake. There was a place inside of her mother as vast and as murky. It must be a sad place, because she often heard her cry. She imagined it was also a place where her mother felt trapped. She’d pull at her clothes and hair as though she were tangled in fishing line. Sometimes she’d run out of the house and drive off. Sometimes she wouldn’t return home for days.
Gram said we all run from something, whether it was a terrible childhood or a bad marriage, or perhaps we run from ourselves, and Caroline’s mother was no different. Caroline understood what Gram was saying, but she couldn’t help but wonder why her mother was always running from her.
“All set?” her mother asked when Caroline had finished making up the bed.
“Looks like it.” She ran her hand over the new green quilt Gram had stitched, smoothing out the wrinkles.
“I’m going to see what Gram needs from me.” Her mother walked away, leaving her alone to finish unpacking.
Caroline unrolled her new poster of the latest boy band and pinned it to the wall. She particularly liked the lead singer, and it wasn’t because she was boy crazy. She liked his skateboard. Okay, maybe she liked his hair, toothy smile, and flawless skin. That reminded her. She dug into the bag in search of sunscreen. She felt around and pulled out her cell phone. No bars or messages. She wasn’t surprised. She tossed it into a drawer. It wasn’t like anyone from home would miss her enough to text. And even if someone did want to contact her for some reason, it was next to impossible, since the lake was nestled deep inside the Pocono Mountains and what was considered a dead zone.
Gram’s voice rang out from the kitchen. She paused to listen.
“Why not?” Gram asked.
“I have things to do,” her mother said.
“You always have things to do. What things, Jo?”
“I don’t know. Things.”
A cabinet door was closed harder than usual.
“Can you at least stick around for a few days and help me clean out that back closet and porch? I can’t do it by myself,” Gram said.
Her mother sighed heavily. A second or two passed before she grumbled, “Maybe.”
But Caroline knew her mother’s maybes were always nos. She had learned at a young age that maybe was just her mother’s way of putting off the answer you didn’t want to hear. Could she get ice cream? Maybe. Could she go to the movies? Maybe. Could she get a skateboard? Maybe.
No ice cream. No movie. No skateboard.
Another cabinet door slammed, rattling the dishes inside, and Caroline figured Gram understood what maybe meant too.
Caroline went back to digging into her bag, pulling out an extra bathing suit and shorts. The cabin’s screen door squeaked open and closed this time without a bang. Her heart beat a little faster. Someone was sneaking out and she knew who.
She dropped the clothes onto the bed, raced out of her room, passed Gram in the kitchen, and bolted outside. Her mother waved as she hopped in the car and pulled away from the cabin. Gravel and dust kicked up from the tires of the old Chevy as she headed down the dirt road.
Caroline swiped her eyes. Crybaby, she scolded herself. At twelve years old, she should no longer need hugs and kisses good-bye from her mother.
And yet she still wanted them.
* * *
Gram opened the screen door. “Are you hungry for lunch?”
Caroline shook her head. “I’m going to see who’s around.” She dragged her feet, and puffs of dirt covered her sneakers. No matter how many times Gram planted seeds, only sparse patches of grass grew under the shade of the old maple trees.
Most of the cabins in the colony had yards. Very few were able to get grass to grow.
Caroline grabbed her bike from the ground. It was considered a boy’s bike, with the bar going across the frame rather than scooping down like a girl’s would. She had asked the man who had sold her father the bike what the difference was other than the obvious disparity with the bar. He had said the design of the scooped frame dated back to when girls wore skirts and dresses rather than pants. Otherwise, there was no difference in the performance or the ride. She wasn’t about to wear a skirt or a dress, so the boy’s bike it was.
She coasted down the dirt hill and crossed onto Lake Road, the main thoroughfare connecting the colony to the lake, and stopped in front of the Pavilion, a big wooden building that served as the hub of the lake community. Nervous excited energy buzzed just below her skin, the kind of energy that bubbles to the surface with the prospect of things to come. The Pavilion was the unofficial meeting place, where her friends gathered, where they hung around the snack stand, bathing suits dripping wet, eating hotdogs and French fries while the jukebox played songs that were older than their parents. She checked her pockets, finding the quarters she always carried when she was there to play the retro pinball machines and arcade games, hoping for a shot at the highest score of the summer.
The lake spread out on both sides behind the Pavilion. The water shimmered and baked in the hot sun. Ducks milled around looking for handouts of crackers and stale bread. Caroline took a deep breath and smelled the faint scent of fish mixed with the earthiness of algae, a distinct smell she associated with summertime.
She dropped her bike on the side of the Pavilion next to her friend Megan’s, a pink girl’s bike, the same bike she had had since they were nine years old. Johnny and a bunch of his friends were sitting on the steps outside the large double doors. He had his arm slung around a girl’s shoulder, and a cigarette dangled from his fingers. The girl’s breasts spilled out of her tank top, and although Caroline tried not to stare, she did anyway. She couldn’t help it. The girl had large breasts, and Caroline knew it was the girl’s chest her brother was after. She felt a little sick and a little sorry for the girl. Sometimes her brother was a real jerk.
“What are you looking at?” Johnny asked.
“Nothing much,” she said, and approached the steps. She started up on nervous legs, taking her time not to trip or bump into Johnny or his friends. Two girls leaned away as she stepped toward them. She reached for the railing to steady herself, feeling self-conscious, like a little kid, the way she felt whenever she walked by Johnny’s best friend, Chris. He was one of the few locals who lived at the lake all year long. Something about his slightly dirty hair and his wide smile made him look as though he was up to no good. The thought gave her a sort of thrill that made her all the more uncomfortable. He was wearing swim trunks, his T-shirt draped over his leg. His skin was bronze and his stomach cut. His one eye was two different colors, half green and half brown, the other solid brown. She couldn’t explain how, but his two-toned eye made him that much cuter. Once, she had overheard Mrs. Nester at the Country Store tell a customer his eye made him look as though he were off-kilter, and maybe that attributed to his reckless behavior.
“Something ain’t right in there,” she had said, and pointed to her head.
Caroline didn’t believe this to be true. If anyone bothered to ask her, she would say there wasn’t a thing wrong with him. He was perfect.
Chris grabbed her ankle as she passed. He flashed a playful smile and stared at her with his captivating eye.
“Don’t let the snappers get you,” he said.
Her brother laughed and flicked his cigarette butt over her shoulder. For a split second she thought about telling her brother to screw off. Two summers ago he nearly had his toe chomped off by a snapper and he about cried. Do you remember that, tough guy? But of course, she wasn’t going to get into a sibling battle in front of his friends, in front of Chris, a battle she was sure to lose.
Chris released her ankle and her skin seemed to melt where his hand had been. She hurried up the rest of the steps and raced inside. The building was dark without the bright sunlight, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust.
“Caroline!” Megan called, waving her arms wildly. “Get over here.”
Megan was standing in front of the old jukebox, and as soon as Caroline was within reach, Megan threw her arms around her and proceeded to jump up and down, jiggling them both. She let Megan twirl her in circles, feeling totally ridiculous and unaccustomed to so much silly exuberance.
When Megan finally released her, she gave Caroline the once-over. She returned the favor and noticed Megan’s heavy blue eye shadow, pink shiny lips, and the two new bumps under her T-shirt. As if the pink bike wasn’t enough, Megan had gone all girly on her in the last year.
Megan started talking fast, in a rush to catch up on everything she had missed since their last text messages, which turned out not to be much, even when you considered how short and few the texts tended to be. Mostly, Megan babbled about some boy, Ryan, she was crushing on. Caroline told her about playing softball, her struggling grades, and how she was glad summer was finally here.
“I hope there are some cute boys this summer,” Megan said. “Maybe someone new. You do want a boyfriend, don’t you?”
“No,” Caroline said much louder than she had intended.
Megan shrugged. “Why not?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I do.”
“Duh.” Megan rolled her blue-lidded eyes and turned toward the jukebox. “I don’t want to be the only one starting seventh grade who hasn’t been kissed.” She turned back toward Caroline. “And I mean properly kissed, tongue and all.”
Caroline must’ve made a face as though she had tasted something awful, because Megan’s eyes opened wide and she said, “It’s not gross.”
“If you say so.”
“It’s not.” Megan looked back at the old jukebox. The outside world had moved on in terms of technology, but the lake and its community refused to succumb to any pressure to change. It was the sense of familiarity, of sameness, that Caroline found comforting year after year. She wished she could say the same about her friend.
They were both silent. The air between them felt awkward and strange. She didn’t want to think about the things Megan talked about, about kissing boys, but her mind jumped to Chris anyway. Her ankle tingled where his hand had touched her, the skin still warm. She bent down and swiped the feeling away, pretending she had an itch. She cleared her throat. She wanted to say something to make the queerness in her stomach and the weirdness between her and Megan go away.
“Come on,” she said, and tugged Megan’s arm, thinking if she could get her to jump into the lake, the water would take care of everything else. For one, it would wash the paint off Megan’s face and she would look more like the Megan from summers past. Two, it would rinse away the heat from Chris’s hand on her skin—and whatever feeling that came with it, the one that squirmed in her stomach, would drown.
* * *
Caroline continued to pull Megan through the Pavilion and out onto the beach. No one stopped them to check for swim passes. No one cared. Caroline tossed her baseball cap, kicked off her sneakers, and stripped from her shirt and shorts to the one-piece bathing suit she wore underneath. The sand was hot to the touch. The girls hurried past the chain-link fence with the sign SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK, and stepped onto the pier.
Caroline looked around for anyone she might recognize, and spotted Adam. His family was one of the regulars who rented a cabin on the lakefront. He was a few years younger, at ten years old. His body was thin and birdlike. His summer buzz cut made his ears appear too big for his head. On either side of Adam were the Needlemeyer twins, Ted and Ned. They were one year younger than she and Megan, and as they walked toward them, she could’ve sworn she heard Megan call the boys babies under her breath.
The twins ribbed Adam, bumping him in the shoulder. Adam shoved Ted back. “I’ll do it when I’m ready,” he said.
“Do what?” Caroline asked. Behind Adam was the high dive, and beside it the low dive and the one most used.
“We dared him to jump off the high dive and touch bottom, but he’s too scared. Chicken. Bwack, bwack, bwack.” Ted flapped his arms.
“Am not.” Adam shoved him again, which only coaxed Ted into flapping his arms faster.
“Let’s see you do it,” Megan said to Ted.
“What? You don’t think I can?” Ted folded his arms, puffing up his chest.
“I think you’re just as scared as Adam,” Megan said, and lay down on the pier, positioning her body under the sun’s rays.
“I’m not scared,” Adam said. His face paled, and he looked as though he might cry.
Caroline stepped in front of him to shield him from the others. She didn’t want Adam to cry, nor did she want them to see if he did.
“Go on,” Ned said to his brother. “Let’s see you do it. I dare you.”
Ted glared at his twin and then turned toward the ladder and started to climb. For as long as Caroline had known them, neither brother would ever back down from a dare. It was a brother thing, or maybe a twin thing, always trying to one up each other.
Caroline watched Ted ascend. She had to shield her eyes from the sun when he reached the very top. “This is stupid,” she said.
Ted walked to the end of the board. His brother called up to him, “Pencil jump.”
He dropped his head as though he were hoping no one would suggest how he had to do it, but of course his brother did. “Fine,” he said, and hesitated, head bowed, staring at the water below.
“Bwack, bwack, bwack.” Ned flapped his arms.
Ted wavered. Ned kept squawking, taunting him. Until he jumped.
Caroline pulled in a sharp breath. At the last second Ted spread his arms wide to prevent a deep plunge. He hit the water with a slap.
“Chicken!” Ned called when Ted surfaced. Then he turned to Adam and said, “Your turn.”
Caroline looked at Adam, whose face was no longer pale, but more ash gray. “Don’t try,” she said to him. “It doesn’t mean you’re a chicken. It means you’re smart.” She climbed the ladder to the low dive, but everyone knew you could never touch bottom jumping off the low dive. The lake was just too deep. Still she said, “Watch this, Adam,” and pencil jumped clean into the water. At first it was cool and refreshing, but the farther she sank, the temperature dropped to near freezing. And although she kept her eyes closed, the darkness of what lay below deepened. She kicked her long legs wildly, her arms paddling at a frantic pace, and propelled to the surface, relieved when her head broke above water and her lungs breathed in air.
“Doesn’t count,” Ned said when Caroline climbed the ladder and stepped back onto the pier. “You have to do it from the high dive.”
Caroline made a face at him. Ned resumed flapping his arms like a chicken. A little girl poked her head out from behind him. She was maybe six or seven years old, with blond braids and bright blue eyes. Her bathing suit was yellow with pink polka dots. She must be new to the lake. Caroline had never seen her before.
“Hi,” Caroline said, pushing Ned out of the way. “Is this your first summer here?”
The little girl smiled and nodded.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Sara,” she said.
“I’m Caroline.” She pointed to Megan, who hadn’t moved from sunning herself. “That’s my friend Megan. And the boys, well…” The boys had stopped teasing one another, and they jumped off the pier, splashing around in the lower end of the lake. “Don’t listen to them. They’re not very smart.”
Sara’s eyes widened. “Why not?”
“Because they’re not. They were just being stupid.”
Sara twisted her mouth to one side as though she was considering what Caroline was telling her.
A woman wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat was standing on the beach waving her arms at them. Caroline waved back. “Is that your mom?”
The little girl nodded.
“I’ll just be a minute,” Sara’s mother called.
“Okay,” Caroline called back.
“What are they up to now?” Megan interrupted, pointing to Adam and the twins. Adam was holding something in his hand. The twins were hunched over him, looking at whatever he had found.
Megan stood. “I’m going to find out what it is.”
Caroline hesitated, wanting to follow her. But Sara’s mother had turned her back, and Caroline couldn’t just walk away from the little girl.
“So,” Caroline said, looking over her shoulder at her friends. The circle they made around Adam tightened while she tried to think of something to say to Sara. “Do you like to swim?”
Sara smiled and nodded again.
“Me too.” Caroline looked toward the beach, where Sara’s mother was struggling with a beach umbrella. “Did you feed the ducks yet?”
“No,” Sara said.
Caroline used to love feeding the ducks when she was Sara’s age, although she couldn’t remember the reason why she had thought it was so fun. “Ask your mom if you can feed them.” She glanced at her friends again. The twins were holding whatever Adam had found, and Adam looked upset. “The ducks like it when you do,” she said absently, wondering what the twins were teasing Adam about this time.
Megan motioned to Caroline. “Come here!” she called.
But Sara’s mother still had her back turned as she continued to fight with the beach umbrella. Caroline glanced at her friends again. Adam’s face was flushed.
“Did you ever touch bottom?” Sara asked.
“What? No,” Caroline said. “Never.”
Megan continued waving her over. Caroline shifted her weight from her right foot to her left, gazing at her friends. Sara stared at the diving boards.
Finally Caroline couldn’t stand it any longer. She had to know what her friends were up to. Sara’s mother had said she would only be a minute. She reasoned Sara wouldn’t be left alone for long. She bent down so she was at eye level with the little girl. “Wait for your mom, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, and in the next moment she was racing down the pier. “And remember,” she called, “the boys were just being stupid!”
Jo fooled herself into thinking she didn’t know the reason she had hopped into the old Chevy and sped down the dirt road away from the cabin. She rolled down the window. A warm breeze blew her long hair from her shoulders. “Three Times a Lady” by the Commodores crackled on the radio. You couldn’t get a decent radio station within twenty miles of the lake. With the Pocono Mountains surrounding you on every side, reception was scant, and the outside world as distant as outer space.
She was stuck in a time warp, and the year was 1978, when the lake was at its finest if you listened to the old-timers tell it. Vacationers were attracted to the sense of familiarity, simplicity, sameness. It was the lake’s charm and the reason you came back year after year. The place and the people and their desire to cling to the good old days were what pissed Jo off. There wasn’t anything good about the good old days, at least none that she could remember.
Still, the song wasn’t bad, and for awhile she sang along as she drove around the colony and fought the urge to turn onto the highway and leave the blasted lake and everything that came with it behind.
Tired and worn from years of battling with Gram, her mother—whom she had stopped calling Mom when Johnny had come along—she sunk farther into the driver’s seat. Her right hand lay limp in her lap while she loosely gripped the steering wheel with her left. Everything caught her eye as she passed by, the cabins and screened-in porches, the fishing poles and tackle boxes left outside front doors, the maple tree she had stood under the first time she had kissed Billy.
She turned the corner and looped back around. The smell of sun baked earth filled her head, and the dampness from the lake clung to her skin. The sights, the smells, the feel—all of it reminded her of Billy.
If only Gram knew what she was asking, demanding she stick around for a couple of days, but then again maybe she did know and she just didn’t care. “You can’t change the past,” Gram had said. “All you can do is live with it.”
But the hardest part for Jo to understand was the disappointment in Gram’s eyes whenever she looked at her. It had become a thing between them, this look of disappointment, separating them through the years. Neither one knew how to bridge the gap nor did it seem that either one wanted to try. Too many years had passed. Too much had been said or not said for either to back down now. It was as though both mother and daughter had given up on each other.
“I’m disappointed in you, too,” she whispered to herself in the car as the Commodores crooned about love.
Subconsciously, or maybe consciously, she steered toward Lake Road and headed down the hill, taking it slow, maneuvering the Chevy around the potholes nobody bothered to fill. She spied Johnny and his friends hanging out on the steps of the Pavilion. He cupped the cigarette he wasn’t supposed to be smoking in his hand and pretended not to recognize their car. As she drove past, she kept her eyes straight ahead.
Pretending not to see each other had been their unspoken agreement since Johnny had turned fourteen two years ago. She didn’t ask the typical questions a mother might ask her teenage son about where he was going and who he was going with mostly because she understood his desire for independence, for freedom. She believed Johnny appreciated the trust she had placed in him, and so far he hadn’t given her any reason not to. She understood better than anyone his need to stray.
After all, he was a lot like her.
He even looked like her—dark hair, full mouth, high cheekbones. The way he looked and behaved, it was easy to forget he was half of his father, too. More times than not she thought of him as solely hers. She didn’t rag on him about things like smoking and drinking as long as he didn’t do it in front of Gram. Besides, he only did those things while he was here. She understood that, too. There was something about this place that brought out the best and worst in you, pushing you to extremes.
“There’s something in the lake water,” she had often joked, but she never laughed. A part of her believed it was true.
Caroline had always been a different variety of kid. From the moment she had entered the world, she had made demands Jo struggled to meet—the feedings every hour, the crying, the fussing, the tantrums when things didn’t go her way. “Mommy, you stay here,” a three-year-old Caroline had said, stomping her foot whenever Jo had tried to leave the house.
The image of Caroline standing in the yard outside of the cabin cut across Jo’s mind. The way she had looked at her, the yearning in her eyes, had scared Jo. A part of her felt threatened by Caroline’s demands of constant love and attention. No matter what Jo said or did, no matter how much of herself she felt she gave, it was never enough. It would never be enough.
For a long time she tried to give her daughter what she could, all the hugs and kisses and affection she demanded, but somehow she’d always come up short. Her biggest fear, her failure as a mother, was simply that she didn’t have anything left to give.
At thirty-two-years old, Jo felt used up.
* * *
She continued driving past Johnny and his friends, and parked on the other side of the Pavilion. The lake poured out in front of her. It was beautiful on the surface, glimmering in the hot summer sun, the water dancing in rhythm against the shore. And yet, underneath all that refreshing sparkle, deep in its belly, its true form lay waiting, where its cold dark reality lurked.
Laughter drew her attention to the beach on her left. Already she could see it was crowded. Families spread out on blankets and chairs. Kids jumped off the low dive and raced to the floating pier in the middle of the lake. Younger kids stayed in the shallow water closer to their parents, where it was safe.
The lake had been her summer haunt since childhood. Gram and Pop had bought the cabin in 1984 at a time when the resort was considered one of the hottest vacation spots in the Poconos. It was at a time when the beach had been overcrowded with vacationers, and a young Jo had to race through hordes of people with her towel and Gram’s beach chair just to get a spot near the water. Pop had to reserve even the smallest of rowboats two weeks in advance if he wanted to do a little fishing.
The lake had held the Trout Festival, the largest festival in the county. But it was the Pavilion that Jo had loved best as a kid. It was always bustling, the second-floor bar hosting concerts with some of the biggest local names in the music industry. Sometimes late at night, when she should’ve been asleep, she’d sneak out of the cabin to listen to the band. She would press her cheek and palms against the Pavilion’s outside wall, the whole building vibrating with sound as though it were alive and dancing with the occupants inside.
Over the years the lake’s popularity had waned and the crowds had thinned, with new vacation spots opening for competition. But the regulars—the cabin owners and locals—kept coming, and together they remained loyal. Once you fell in love with the lake, the Pavilion, it was unlikely you’d fall out.
After tucking her hair behind her ears, Jo climbed out of the Chevy. A delivery truck pulled into the lot. She waited while it backed up to the stairs leading to the second-floor bar. A man in a gray uniform emerged with a clipboard in his hand. He opened the back door of the truck where the kegs and cases of beer were stacked.
Jo hustled past and trotted up the steps. Inside, the heat smoldered like an oppressive cloud. Eddie leaned on the bar, looking over a stack of order forms.
“We’re closed,” he said without looking up.
“Hey, stranger.” Jo sat on the stool in front of him.
He lifted his head and smiled wide. “Hey, Jo. I thought that was your boy I saw earlier. When did you get in?”
“You look good.” His dark eyes settled on hers. His long hair was tied in a ponytail, and a sweat-stained red bandanna was wrapped around his head. “Do you want a beer?”
“I thought you were closed.”
“Not to you.” He popped the cap off a cold bottle and set the beer down in front of her. She took a long swallow before reaching for a cigarette. He was quick with a light, and when she leaned into the flame, she couldn’t help but notice his missing thumb tip, the one the snapper had bitten off when they were sixteen years old.
He glanced at his thumb, and she was embarrassed to have been caught staring. After all these years, she struggled to shake the image of him flapping that turtle through the water, screaming, splashing, and later, sitting on the beach, staining the sand black with his blood, his then girlfriend, Sheila, holding him.
She had been Billy’s girl back when it had happened. Everything in her life, good or bad or in-between, always led back to Billy.
* * *
She polished off the bottle of beer and set it on the bar, raising her pointer finger, signaling to Eddie for another. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gotten drunk in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe as far back as last week when she had split a bottle of wine with one of the other maids while they were scrubbing the floors in the half-a-million-dollar mansion they were hired to clean back home in New Jersey.
“So are you planning to stick around for a few days?” Eddie asked.
“It looks like it.” She didn’t have much choice. Gram was adamant about needing her help, although she still had to clear it with Rose, her boss. She raised the bottle to her lips. “Apparently, I have chores to do around the cabin,” she said before taking a long drink.
“Is Kevin joining you?” he asked.
“He had to haul a load to Arizona.” Although he was most likely on his way back by now. Kevin drove a big rig for a trucking company. He was on the road more than he was home, and she was okay with that. She understood it was easier for him to be away. He had given up so much, sticking by her when she became pregnant at sixteen with Johnny, marrying her when he could’ve walked away. She loved him for it. Sometimes she loved him so much, it hurt.
The delivery guy made an appearance with several cases of beer stacked on a dolly. Eddie rushed to help him. While the guys unloaded the order, she continued to smoke and drink, wondering how she was ever going to get through the next couple of days.
By the time Eddie returned to the bar, she was feeling dizzy from the heat. Frank Heil, the owner of the Pavilion, the bar, and the beach, was too cheap to leave the air conditioning on when the bar was technically closed. Eddie had to work in the heat until the sun went down and the doors were opened to customers.
“Here.” He opened another cold bottle and set it in front of her. “You know, I didn’t want to say anything earlier, but your boy was all over one of those Chitney girls.”
“So soon? It didn’t take him long.” She picked up the cold bottle and placed it on her cheek.
“Those Chitney girls are, well, you know what I mean. I’d make sure Johnny knows what he’s getting into. The oldest sister, she’s got two kids, and she doesn’t even know who their father is.” He was about to say something more but then stopped.
People were shouting on the beach below. Their voices traveled through the open balcony and to the second-floor bar. Eddie looked at her. “That doesn’t sound good, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t,” she said.
A woman screamed.
Copyright © 2015 Karen Katchur.
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Karen Katchur lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters. The Secrets of Lake Road is her first novel.