We make the best of what we’ve got. Two tents, a flat piece of land, a nylon hammock that packs down to nearly nothing. We stuff the cooler with ice, but the week-long heat wave stretching across Vermont means we’re careful about opening it too often. One too many times, you say, and everything will go bad. The eggs will hard-boil in their carton, the fat on the bacon will start to crisp.
Even the cicadas can’t handle the heat. They buzz in the branches above us all morning, but by the afternoon their corpses land like shucked husks around our tent.
We planned this camping trip back in February, during our longest winter of long distance yet, but back then everything was ice, and a patch of sunburned land a short walk from Lake Champlain sounded like paradise.
Now that we are here, though, I’d kill for a cube.
Just one, I beg, but you refuse.
I’d suggest stripping down and lying naked in our tent, but that isn’t an option either. Online the campground looked secluded, but in real life it is full of campers. Kids ride their bikes by our tent, and we have to duck down to get dressed. Instead, we spend the entire afternoon in our tent fully clothed, chasing the thin shadow of the tree where you hung the hammock. We don’t touch. We stretch ourselves out like stars. We close our eyes and move only when the sun catches up with us, turning the backs of our lids bright red.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t put the tent under the trees?” I asked when I arrived the day before and saw you standing proudly in the middle of our campsite, your arms outstretched like some game show guy. You had arrived early to set everything up, you said, because I had been working so hard all summer. It was supposed to be a surprise. I was taking a summer graduate class in horror, and you said I deserved a break.
You sighed that day when I suggested moving the tent. Your outstretched arms dropping, your face falling like a star.
After two afternoons in the sun, though, we’re even more on edge.
“Maybe we should move the tent,” I try again, but you sit up. Your back is a desert that, when I reach out my fingers to trek across, you twist away.
“Is this how it’s going to be all week?” you ask. “You criticizing everything I do?”
“Jesus,” I say. “Just forget I said anything then.”
That evening we take your double kayak down to the lake to watch the sunset and paddle out to the middle.
When I was a kid, my family used to camp on this lake. Really the creek that empties into it. It was something my stepfather had been doing for years, and when he married my mother, it was one of the few things that didn’t change. Every weekend in the summer, we’d go with him up here to fish, letting the steady flow of water push us in his metal-sided boat. It was always hot on the boat, and it was always quiet. Quiet except for the occasional whisper of a line being recast or the whine of a line being pulled in the direction of a fight.
“I don’t get it,” you said to me one night when I mentioned again, off-handedly, that my childhood was terrible. “What exactly did your stepfather do?”
“He made our lives a living hell,” I said, because I didn’t know how to describe it in any way that didn’t sound like every other terrible childhood, but our home with him in it felt like a field littered with landmines: the trash that wasn’t emptied fast enough, the shower that took too long, the food that he would say was only his to eat. I never knew where to step. I never knew where I was safe.
On my way to meet you at our campsite two days before, I passed the place where my stepfather used to set up his trailer, the sign so faded I almost didn’t see it. I was running late, but I couldn’t help myself. I pulled in and drove to the spot in the back where we used to stay. I rolled down the window and waited for something to feel.
A woman came out then, out of the trailer that wasn’t ours. She held her hand over her eyes until I drove away.
“What took you so long?” you asked when I finally arrived.
“Traffic,” I lied. “125 was a mess.”
That night in the kayak, you cast into open water as I sit back and pretend to read. I brought the books I should have read already for class—The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, House of Leaves—but it’s too hot to do anything other than drag my hand across the surface of the water and look for landmarks. That island where we used to stop and eat lunch. The tall reeds reaching like hands out of the water near the creek.
If I look really hard, I can see a square of white just north of us that I think is the Basin Harbor Club. I went to college not far from here, and my sophomore year I took an Oceanography class that conducted labs on the water. Out professor was making a topographical map of the lake floor, and every Thursday we would take his research vessel to a different spot to measure the distance to the bottom. We dropped hollow tubes that were weighted on one end into the soft sediment, and when we got back to the lab, we split them open like clamshells. We looked at the cross-section of the lake’s history. We made marks where the color of the clay changed: black from when it had been all ice, red from when it had still been salt. One time, during our Oceanography lab, we sent a camera under the surface and took a tour of the bottom.
“See that right there?” I say to you, pointing toward the horizon with my paddle. “The big white building?” Lake water drips on our dry sac.
“Come on, Emily,” you say. “You’re getting everything wet.”
“Relax,” I want to say, but I don’t. If I do, I know I won’t stop. I’ll say other things, too, like how I’m sick of you being so moody and sick of you always ruining these things and sick of you not caring about the things that are important to me, so instead I tell you what’s down there, underneath the surface of this lake: old tires, a car turned to rust, a perfectly preserved ship from another century, mast-less and lying on its side.
Everything is covered in zebra mussels, an invasive species that took over in the ten years between when I stopped coming to the lake and when I came back for the first time for this class. The shells are so sharp, my professor said, they can cut you to the quick. But only where the two sides came together. If you hold the mussel on its side, if you squeeze its full cheeks between your thumb and forefinger, it will burst, its waterlogged insides spilling everywhere with the smallest pinch.
It’s not the sun that wakes me in the morning, but the sense I have of you moving next to me. It’s the same thing that used to wake me when we camped on the creek. Not the damp morning air trapped in the trailer, but the hollow sound of bodies beginning to move. I would open my eyes in our trailer and find my mother reaching above me where I slept, on the table that lowered and turned into a bed. She would be reaching into the cabinets where the pots were stored, the Nivea night cream still on her skin. Because the trailer was mobile, everything in it held tight. The cabinets all latched shut, even the refrigerator closed with a click. Everything my mother did in the mornings at the lake sounded so unlike her. Firm. Resolute.
The trailer was balanced precariously on soft ground, and I would watch my mother, careful not to move it with her movements. She was careful not to ruin the peace that were mornings while my stepfather slept. When he woke up, he pushed back the accordion door and stepped into the kitchen. He made the entire trailer shudder.
My mother moved out of his way. “Coffee?” she said, but he held up his hand.
I watched her squeeze herself against the sink. I watched her watching him. I watched her try to gauge how the day would go from the smallest of signs. Silence was a sign. So was slamming the door on the way out. So were too few fish writhing in the bottom of his boat. So was running aground in the middle of the lake.
Depending on how hard the sun shone or how many bones were left in the bass my mother fried in butter for our dinner, his mood could mean anything: a middle finger when you wished him goodnight, grounding that lasted six months, an argument that went on for an entire trip, a car being pulled over to get a better angle into the backseat.
“There’s a monster in this lake,” I say to you that afternoon when I decide to swim while you fish.
We’ve been fighting all morning about stupid things—how long I left the cooler open when I went for water, the way I put too much pressure on the seat in your kayak, why I poured a soda out the open window of your truck—and now we’re up to our knees in churned up muck from where some rookie boater started his engine too close to shore.
“Champ,” I say. “Isn’t that a stupid name?”
You don’t say anything. You cast your line.
“What,” I say, taking it as a sign. “Are you not talking to me now?”
Later that night, when the sun is down and the tent and our tempers have cooled, we watch scary movies on my computer. Alien, you insist, because it’s your favorite, and Friday the 13th, because I have to for school.
At the end of the movie, when the girl is floating in the boat on that mirrored lake, I rest my head on your shoulder, convinced by the swelling music and double-fade that it is finally over.
Slasher films don’t scare me—not really—but one of the things I learned that summer is that different things scare people for different reasons. Some people can’t stand ghosts but don’t mind deranged murderers. Other people get freaked out by demonic children but can handle mysterious monsters lurking in the woods.
The one thing that seemed universally frightening was the unknown. It was always the not knowing what was out there or how it was going to get you in the end that really did a person in. Part of what makes scary stories so satisfying is that, eventually, you find out who or what the monster is, and it’s never as terrifying as you imagined. The monster is always some version of something you know—a sad mother, a deranged man—and once you know who the monster is, it’s not so scary anymore. It’s comforting because you can get to the end and say, “Oh right. I’m okay. Everything is okay. I know how this story goes.”
“Holy shit!” I scream when Jason’s rotting body rises from the water and pulls the girl under.
“Quiet,” you say. “Everyone can hear you.”
Later that night, I lie awake and imagine all of the ways we might find our end: sliced through the throat suddenly like Kevin Bacon or being finally caught after running through the woods for miles. I listen to all of the sounds around us and think that each one is it: the moth pinging repeatedly against the bulb by the bathroom, the lake lapping the sides of the dock, the vacuous sound of a star exploding somewhere in the sky.
Let’s just get it over with, I remember thinking. Anything would be better than all this waiting.
One night we aren’t terrible to each other at all. We take turns reading aloud from one of my books. We lie on our backs in the soft fluorescent light of the lantern you hang from the center of our tent and listen to the sounds of our mouths starting to stick after too many pages. Outside, mosquitos dive-bomb toward our dome of light and bounce off the sides of our tent.
When I was fourteen, my mother divorced my stepfather, and I remember asking her when it had changed, when the man she married had become a monster.
“Honestly, Emily,” she said. “One minute he was amazing.” She snapped her fingers. “And the next, he was not.”
It would take years for me to realize that this is not true, that there were signs from the very beginning that my mother, for a variety of reasons, chose to ignore, but that wouldn’t stop me from always worrying that the same thing would happen to me. I would spend years looking behind every corner, years readying myself to leave, years looking for any sign that things were about to turn terrifying.
Is this it? I would wonder every time someone was unkind or self-center or in any way moody. Is this that moment where the audience starts yelling at the screen, “Run, girl! What are you waiting for? Get the hell out of there while you still can.”
That night, as we are falling asleep, you buried your nose in my neck and told me the truth: you put our tent in the sun that first because you wanted to hang the hammock between the two trees. You wanted me to have a spot in the shade where I could read.
“Honey,” I say, and I turn sweet. “Why didn’t you just tell me that to begin with?”
If you answered, I don’t remember. I think I assumed you were sleeping. But maybe you weren’t. Maybe you didn’t answer because you didn’t know either. Neither of us seemed to know why we were doing the things that we did back then.
I think it is the next morning that we fought—big and loud like we’ve forgotten there is anyone in the world except us. Something happens—you turn away from me or you ignore something I say—and it’s finally one thing too many. I can’t take it. I get into my car and drive south. I call you from a T.J. Maxx parking lot and tell you how terrible you are, how tired I am of feeling like you don’t love me. I’m never coming back, I scream. I scream louder than I ever have. I tell you I can’t do this anymore. I tell you I mean it this time.
But this time I don’t. I don’t know why I don’t keep going. I don’t know why I go back, but on the way I stop at the place that you love and pick up sandwiches that we will eat in silence before we say we’re sorry.
Afterward, we walk to the lake. We wade in tentatively. We watch a boat speed by and wait for its wake.
Years later, you will tell me that when we fight, I get mean, that when I get like that, I remind you of your father, and it will knock me over like a wave.
“I’m so sorry,” I will say, because I will not know this about your past and because I will not believe you could keep something like that from me and because I will realize in that moment that I am the monster and I will cry so hard the room will look like it is full of water and we both drowning. “I’ll be better,” I will promise you, and for a long time I will be, but it won’t matter. Eight months later, our end will find us. Quick and painless, for the record, because somehow we will be kinder to each other in the end than we ever could be as a couple. We will be kind to each other, attentive like we are that afternoon at the lake.
“Careful,” you say, when we are in it up to our waists, “The lake monster might get you.”
I dive for you then. I pick my legs up off the silty bottom and wrap them around your waist. “Don’t put me down,” I say, because I’m convinced—really convinced—that as long as my feet don’t touch the bottom, I will be fine.