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“Remember the night that boy drowned?” said my mother.

Well, I did. But I preferred to remember the gingerbread cake with lemon sauce they’d served for dessert every Sunday at the lodge. A sweet, red-headed waitress called Susanna would bring me a second helping if I wanted.

“His sister was your friend.”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Did you keep in touch?”

“What’s this about? Why do you suddenly care?”

I leaped from bed, barefoot, and ran to the window. Shapes were moving through the darkness, lights flickering. It’s their world, I thought, the grown ups’ world. I crawled back under the covers and fell asleep. Later, in a dream, I heard screaming.

Few things in the past really matter. They’re stories you walk out of, like a movie.

My mother didn’t want to let it go.

“You knew that boy,” she said.

I didn’t answer.

“He was a beautiful boy. A strong swimmer. They said it was cramp.”

Okay, so I loved Paul from afar. It was a child’s crush. When I was growing up, twelve was twelve, it wasn’t twelve going on thirty. We spoke twice. Once, he was lounging with friends on the big wooden veranda that circled the lodge. I walked by carefully, trying to ignore them. They seemed too large, they smelled of aftershave and beer. Paul suddenly reached out and pulled me against him. “Hey,” he said, “here’s my new girlfriend.” “Idiot,” I hissed, tearing myself away.

“He died so young.” My mother’s eyes were blurring. “Just like David.”

“It’s not the same,” I protested, “David was forty-five, married with children. He’d had a life.”

“My son’s gone,” moaned my mother. “What’s the difference?”

By now I’d realized that this wasn’t about Paul. Or about my memories and another family’s grief. My mother’s face was melting. Tears coursed down. I brought her a box of tissues and sat in silence.

Paul dived from the end of the pier, clean as a knife.

“I wish I could see his mother. I wish I could tell her. He and David were such good friends, do you remember?”

I watched jealously as they roughhoused in the water. I’d befriended Paul’s sister, Edie, just to hear his name casually mentioned, just to hear details of his life. He actually had a girlfriend named Renee, but she was working all that summer in the city. Saving up for college, Edie said. When she came up one weekend, I felt surprised. She wasn’t much to look at, flat as a board, with thin, reddish hair and freckled skin. “She must put out,” said Edie, and we laughed.

Paul’s half a fish, Edie liked to say. I guess half wasn’t enough.

The second time I met Paul, I was bawling. I’d found a dead seagull near the water. It looked quite whole, as if it were asleep. Quietly, Paul approached. He scooped up the gull and helped me to bury it. We gathered dry twigs and made a marker, then we covered the spot with broken shells. “It’s not so bad,” Paul said, “it’s nature’s way.” He seemed so calm, so radiantly certain.

That summer, Edie and I played like children, though I’d bought my first lipstick at the mall and smeared it on in my room with the door shut tight. The two of us spent hours with paper dolls, picking outfits for their busy social lives. And we loved to build castles on the beach.

We’d dig a trough in the sand, and then, as the bay seeped in, we kneaded and blended. The texture of the mud had to be right: loose enough to flow, thick and dense enough to hold together. When it was ready, we funneled it through our hands or let it drip in random patterns between our fingers. The walls of our castle grew, layer on layer. At first, they were heavy and damp, the sand glistening. Then they became brittle, their light faded. Little by little, the ramparts began to crumble. The next day, we dug fresh wells and built new towers.

When I think of Paul, I think of one of those castles. It’s strong and freshly built, its walls are gleaming. And I think of glowing fish that live fathoms deep. They swim where there’s no light, so they become light.

“Muskoka” was published in The St. Ann’s Review.


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