It's sweltering, even by the lake. No breeze; just sunshine and sweat and baking skin. I glance over at Rosalie. She stripped her top off and is lying face down on a bright red, striped beach towel. When we were 15 she told me that she thought tan lines were pedestrian. I agreed, even though I didn't know what she meant. That summer we got caught sunbathing topless and Charlie had a really embarrassing meltdown. The subsequent lecture was wildly uncomfortable for us all, and we haven't tried it since.
I smile at the memory and prop myself up on my elbows.
It's a Tuesday in June and the lake is dead. The weekend crowd is gone and there are just a few boats out, reflecting flashes of silver as the fishermen cast their lines into the deep green water. I wonder what they're hoping to catch. Charlie taught me that the best fishing happens at dusk and dawn. I know about the importance of the barometric pressure, and depth finders, and the careful selection of a lure. I go with him sometimes when he's here, loving the quiet and ritual. We don't talk much, but Charlie always lets me have a can of his Wisconsin-brewed beer, and in my earlier years I acted each time like it was my first sip. He doesn't need to know my first beer was an Old English 40oz when I was 14. Jasper stole them from the corner store down off the main road during his gangsta rap phase; one for me, one for him, and one for Rosalie.
They are my cousins and my best friends, but most of the year we're in different states. Our vacation cabins are in northern California, but I'm from Washington State and they live in Los Angeles. Charlie and Carlisle, Rosalie and Jasper's dad, inherited the property from our grandparents, and it's the best place to be in the summer. The heat soars, and the water is so clear you can submerge yourself neck deep and still see your toes.
The cabins are less cabins and more houses, built with local logs. They are peaked, with lofts and windows that extend floor to ceiling. Wide porches wrap around and are supported by giant beams, as the cabins were on a steep incline. They each have a staircase that zigzags down the hill, which is great for the booty, but hell after a night of drinking on the beach.
We arrive every June and stay through August, Charlie and Carlisle flying in and out as their schedules allow. We have staff that comes to clean weekly, stock us with groceries and provide us with anything else we need. We are undoubtedly spoiled, but unlike some members of our family, we aren't complete assholes.
You'd think that we'd get bored sitting around in the middle of nowhere with no other friends, but we're content. We eat, tell stories and laugh; swim, sing loud and badly along to Jasper's guitar at the bonfire, get drunk and lounge in the hot tub. We are 19, and looking forward to our sophomore year of college this fall.
Jasper is heavy into music, Rosalie into cooking and I write a lot, but unlike them I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I write down all of our stories for posterity. Someday our kids will know this place, and read about this summer.
I think of my mom and how much she loved it here. She died when I was 10. I push the thought out of my head, though, not wanting to dwell on it today. At 9 a.m. the heat is already shimmering off the sand.
"Looks like someone bought the Newton place."
I follow Jasper's gaze and see a group of men and one short, slim woman standing hand on hip with what looks like blueprints. They study the papers, watching her gesture, and nodding in agreement.
"Hope they're cool. We've already got one Mrs. Mallory." We all glance at her cabin, which is on the opposite side of the bay from the Stanley house. She is peering at us through binoculars on her deck. We all wave in unison with big smiles. She stomps back in, slamming the screen door behind her.
"That woman needs to chill the fuck out," Jasper laughs.
She watches us disapprovingly all summer long, but I think she secretly harbors feelings for J. He flirts with her at the corner store and though she glares and sputters at his advances she is probably smitten. Most women are.
I look back to the Stanley house. I'm curious, but not overly so, guessing it's probably just an old couple living out their retirement in the woods, or a family with little kids.
Rose is definitely not thinking about kids. "Some of those construction guys look hot, Bella." She lifts her sunglasses and squints at them across the distance.
Jasper and I groan.
"Keep it in your pants, ladies. That's all I ask." He shakes his head.
Rose rolls her eyes almost audibly, lowering her sunglasses and adjusting her bikini top for maximum cleavage.
Without many people our age around, none of us are enjoying a summer romance. It's the one downfall of our relative isolation. Occasionally we can convince Jasper to watch a stupid, fluffy girl movie with us. Rose and I swoon, and he lets out exasperated sighs, hating every second of it. I lie in bed those nights and miss kissing, and the anticipation of a crush. I miss butterflies in my stomach and the flush resulting from a boy's stare. The rest of the time I try not to think about it.
Rose and I spend the rest of the day sipping cocktails, watching the construction crew. They certainly watch us. Rose is a knockout, and makes a show of applying oil to her long, tan, dancer's legs. Jasper works on his latest project, rebuilding a boat motor from the 70's. He comes in and out of the boathouse, grease on his hands, back shiny with sweat. He sings along to the Black Keys and tinkers, sipping a sweating Corona.
Rose fans herself uselessly in the heat.
"Jesus Christ. I feel like I'm getting heat stroke or some shit," she bitches.
"Cannonball?" I ask, already getting up.
She follows and we stand in front of the dock, poised for the game we've been playing ever since I can remember.
We look at each other, and nod, running together toward the water and throwing ourselves off the end of the dock. We surface, laughing, and look to Jasper for his critique.
"I'd give it 6.8."
"Bitch, please. That was at least an 8," Rose argues, splashing him as she walks out of the water.
They continue the debate; he's analyzing the synchronicity of the dual jumps and the tightness of our cannonballs for point deduction. This could go on for a while. They don't hear my phone ring.
"Hey, Bells." I can hear that his voice is strained.
"What's up? Is something wrong?" My throat feels tight. Rose and Jasper stop bickering and look over, brows furrowed.
"Well," I can almost see him rubbing the back of his neck, "we have a bit of a situation."
My cousins move closer, sitting across from me, together on Rose's lounge chair.
The three of us stare at each other. We're waiting for the bad news. We'd all had our fair share of it. Not long after my mom died, their mother, Charlie's sister Jane, committed suicide. Jasper and Rose found her. They spent years heavily medicated, which is ironic in a way, because she OD'd on pills. They look anxious and my stomach knots and unknots.
"Dad? You're kinda freaking me out."
"Oh God, sorry, kid. It's not that serious, don't worry."
I release a breath and relax my shoulders, shaking my head slightly at the cousins. They both slouch down on the chair, relieved and rolling their eyes.
"You remember Alice Brandon?"
His business partner has a daughter our age. She and I get along well, but her family runs the east coast branch of their fishing tackle empire.
Yes, that's right. Fishing tackle empire. It's funny, but lucrative.
After all of the board meetings and boring paperwork, our dads were just two nerds who love to fish.
He told me while ago that Alice was living in Manhattan.
"Of course," I reply, reaching for my drink. Now that I know it's not life or death I sit back and sip at it, listening.
"Her parents want her to get out of the city for a while. Some crazy ex-boyfriend has been harassing her. Broke into her apartment last week. He comes from a wealthy family. The Kings?"
I raise my eyebrows at that, knowing the name from the gossip rags. They are oil tycoons whose son has a laundry list of vapid celebrity hookups and drug arrests.
He continues, "His father has a lot of pull in New York, and they don't want to involve the media so they're having trouble getting legal help."
"Wait, Alice dated Royce King?" Rose's face lights up. He responds in the affirmative, not knowing the significance of the name.
"So, she'll be there tonight. Sorry to spring this on you but I figured you wouldn't mind. You can put her in Pine," referring to the third, vacant cabin.
He sounds distracted now, and I can hear that he's already onto the next task, so I assure him that I'll take care of it and hang up.
I explain the situation to Rose and Jasper, and we gossip about Royce King, and wonder how he got hooked up with Alice.
"She hot?" Jasper interjects.
"Shut up, moron!" Ro slaps his chest.
"Oh come on! It's a totally valid question!" he shoots back, grinning.
"She's really pretty. But dude, she just got out of some traumatic relationship, so don't get all grabby when she gets here," I warn. Jasper smirks.
"Fresh meat, yo." He leans back, nodding and smug.
Rose smacks him again, this time on the back of the head.
We spend the rest of the day in the water. Rose and I float; Jasper brings us cocktails and talks shit from the dock, working on the motor. We listen to southern rock, which goes with the heat. As the sun's rays starts to weaken, Rose gets out of the water, shaking her hips to "Sweet Home Alabama" as Jasper air-guitars the riff.
Twins. They often fight, but it isn't hostile, and they have that creepy twin-sixth-sense about one another. When we were 12, Jasper broke his arm at baseball camp. At the exact same moment, Rose burst into tears at the breakfast table here at the cabin.
Jasper is closing up the boathouse for the night. "What should we watch tonight, ladies?"
I look across the lake at the horizon, noting the dark clouds rolling in. Not a night for a bonfire.
"Thelma and Louise?"
"Veto!" Jasper yells from inside the boathouse.
We each get one veto per night when it comes to movie selection.
"Okay, so do we want drama, comedy or horror?" I ask, starting the trek up the stairs, arms full of towels, glasses and books, knowing a storm is on its way.
I look back. "Horror," we all say together.
I love a good horror movie, and nothing is creepier than 70's cinema. We decide on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then spend about an hour debating the dinner menu.
We usually customize our meals according to the movie of the night, but nothing about a chainsaw massacre is appetizing, so we just go with the Texas theme. Each cabin has an impressive kitchen in the lofty main room. We end up hanging out in Rose's kitchen most of the time. J and I sit on stools at the counter, lazily sipping beers as Rosalie moves around the kitchen, looking through the cupboards and fridge, finding what she needs for fried chicken. If Rose didn't feed us I would exist on frozen pizza and Pringles. In fact, most of the year I do.
We smoke a joint on the porch before dinner, telling stories about when we were kids. The air is hot and electric and the sky is greenish.
My dad calls again around 6 to let me know that Alice will be arriving at 8, so we make enough food for four and settle in to watch the movie. About halfway through, thunder rumbles in from the east.
The storms up here are stellar. Lightning, booming thunder and sheets of rain. Through the massive windows we can see every lightning strike through the sky, illuminating the whole loft. Rose and I share the couch, squealing together at the nasty parts of the movie, which is most of it, and J sits in the recliner, pretending to be irritated at our girliness and trying to hide his own cringing at the gore. Mostly we laugh.
The movie ends and we head back into the kitchen. Rose starts popcorn and I sit on the counter, swinging my legs. Jasper leans up against the counter next to me, impersonating our squealing during the movie while mixing drinks. We pretend to speak in southern twangs and I toss pieces of popcorn at his head.
The knock on the back door startles us all.
It's silent, except for the corn popping and Rose's eyes grow wide before she remembers that Alice was due to arrive about an hour ago. I hop off the counter, heading towards the door to let her in.
She's drenched, and looks small in the doorway. Lightning flashes, illuminating her silhouette, as she hunches against the rain pouring down on her head.
"Come in, come in." I reach out to guide her and she lets me, but flinches a little at the contact.
I grab her bags from the doorway and drop them into the tiled entryway. Everything is sopping wet.
"Hey Bella," she says quietly as she peels off her jacket.
Remembering her flinch, I resist the urge to pull her into a hug and instead take her coat to hang on a hook.
"How are you?" I ask.
She looks up and smiles a sad smile. "I'm okay. Glad to get out of the city."
"Well, welcome. Mi casa ... you know."
We leave her bags there to dry off and make our way into the kitchen where Rose and J are perched on stools at the counter, looking curious. I make introductions and watch with interest as Alice perks up a bit upon seeing Jasper. My cousin is handsome. Very. Long and lean with blond curling hair, and bohemian in his eclectic style. He is rocking a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, threadbare from years of wear, and a large American flag-belt buckle on his very expensive worn jeans. It's typical Jasper attire.
He offers her a drink, which she downs in about two gulps, steadying herself with one hand on the counter.
She sets the glass down.
None of us know what to say, so Jasper reaches forward for her glass to make her another. She shies away from his arm as it nears. Jasper gives me a pointed glance.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I say softly, looking at her down turned face.
She shakes her head. "Not really."
I feel so much for this girl. What could take the spark out of someone like Alice? She is always unfailingly positive. She is a spitfire, with a contagious, sparkling laugh. But tonight, standing in her wet, dark clothes, her hair limp around her head, she is sad and not herself, at all.
"My dad is getting the third cabin ready for you tomorrow, but..."
She looks up with wide eyes and says firmly, "I can't stay alone."
I nod, "Then tonight, we slumber party."
Jasper and Rose smile widely, and go to get blankets and pillows. We all pass out in the living room together at least once a week. I suppose we could stay in one cabin all summer, but I like my privacy and enjoy walking around without pants on, honestly. They come back dragging futons. The living room is large enough to lay them next to each other, and we make a sort of nest around us, all down pillows and Egyptian cotton and comfort.
I bring Alice to the closest guest bedroom to change, and borrow pajamas from Jasper, not Rose, for myself, because hers are the kind that require heels and full makeup. We gather, reclining on pillows, but Alice stays upright and clutches her third drink, looking down into it.
Jasper is staring at her. It's rare that he drops the "nonchalant act" around girls. It's his game, and it works. Alice sighs, looking up, sensing all of our eyes on her.
She smiles a little, sipping her drink. "Thanks for this," she says simply.
Jasper gets up then, his jeans hanging off his hips and his t-shirt threadbare on his chest and saunters into the kitchen. Alice watches.
"There is only one thing to cure what is ailing you, darlin'."
He rifles through the liquor cabinet, producing a bottle of whiskey much better than the one we've been drinking with Coke. He grabs shot glasses and strolls back over, setting them on the thick wood of the coffee table. He pours a round and raises his as we grab ours.
"To better days, which are surely coming," he drawls, looking at each of us, but his hooded eyes linger on Alice.
She looks dazed looking back at him, a small smile on her face. Okay, he's still working it a little. I bite back a giggle.
We toss back the shots to complete the toast.
That night we don't hear her story, but we tell ours, in between shots of whiskey and pulls on joints that Jasper rolls carefully, the smoke curling up to the lofted ceiling.
While we talk, I write about chicken, chainsaws, whiskey and weed. And just like that, Alice is part of it all.
We fall asleep, Rose and I on the outside of the beds, while Jasper and Alice lie in the middle, facing each other. The storm persists but doesn't penetrate our bubble. We are whole and good and I hope that Alice feels safe.
Once, during the night, I feel her startle awake, and I snuggle closer, not touching, until her breathing evens out and she seems to fall back asleep.
Everything feels right.