Chapter 1 SUMMER OF EGRETS Present Chelsea 1
The lake house hasn’t changed in the ninety-one years of its distinguished existence. Solid, stately, a relic of the Rockefeller and Durant era, it has survived three hurricanes, countless termite infestations, and a flood. It’s survived death itself. A bold claim if you can make it, but in this case, it happens to be true. Last summer, it burned to ashes with Emily Joiner trapped inside, and it was simply resurrected in its own image by its benefactors. It’s indestructible. Impervious to death and all that nature and beyond can summon. I’ve always thought of the lake house as a special place, but as I stare up at it, risen from ruin a year after its demise, the word that comes to mind is miraculous.
Has it really been a year?
To the day.
I pull the stiff, custom-made postcard from the pocket of my faded army-green capris, a pair that Emily designed herself. On the front of the card is a gorgeous snapshot of the house. It was built in the Adirondack architecture style—a million-dollar mansion with a rustic stacked-log-and-stone aesthetic, a wraparound porch featuring delicate columns of hand-carved trees with branches winding up to the roof, and a sculpted arch of briar framing the door. Out back is a killer view of Lake George, a serene little corner exclusive to the handful of neighbors scattered sparsely along the coast. Completely secluded by majestic pines, the lake house is something out of a fairy tale, a lone cottage in a deep dark forest.
I do think it gets lonely. I would.
The house is in its own little world, buffered from civilization by the wilderness and a strict back-to-nature philosophy—no internet, no cable, no Netflix, satellite, or cell service; just peace, quiet, sun, swimming, boating, and plenty of misbehavior. It’s been our summer haven for the past ten years. Me; Emily; our best friend and my ex-girlfriend, Kennedy; Emily’s twin brother, Ryan; his best friend, Chase; and as of two years ago, Chase’s girlfriend, Mila. Last year should have been the last year because that was the year of the fire. The year we took things too far. The Summer of Swans. The year Emily died.
But then, the postcard came.
I flip it over and read it again. It’s a hot day, and my car is like an oven. It only takes the interior of a car about half an hour to reach a deadly temperature when it’s in the mid-sixties outside. The gauge on my dashboard reads 81. I pull back the dark frizzy curls clinging to my neck and twist them into a bun on top of my head, yank the keys out of the ignition, and kick the car door open. A cool breeze sweeps off the lake and touches my face, fluttering my T-shirt against my skin. It’s like a blessing from the lake gods. The sound of wind chimes rings softly, an arrangement of notes both strange and familiar, like a music-box song. I imagine the sound of my name in my ear, a whisper in the breeze. I am home. I take my sunglasses off and close my eyes, shutting out the light, and allow the delicious air to wash over me. The scent of pine and soft earth. The promise of cool, clear water on my skin. The taste of freshly caught fish, charred on the grill; gooey marshmallow, melted chocolate; Kennedy’s lips, sweet with white wine. Our voices, laughing, swirled around bonfire smoke.
Jesus. I open my eyes, and the bright sunlight makes me dizzy. Charred. Smoke. Just thinking the words gives me a sense of vertigo, even now. My mouth feels bitter, full of bile, and the phantom smell of smoke stings my nostrils and makes my eyes water. How could I think about fire in that way, here of all places, today of all days? Where Emily died. Where her bones were burned black.
I don’t know that for a fact. She may have asphyxiated. The rest of us were assembled on the lawn, in shock, immobile, separated from Emily. My parents wouldn’t let me know the details. I haven’t been allowed to find out for myself. It’s been a nightmare of a year. A year without my friends. A year without any friends. Any fun. Of seclusion, doctors, fucking arts and crafts and therapy animals. Which, yes, they’re cute, but it’s insulting. Five minutes petting a golden retriever before he’s ushered away into the next room does not repair an unquiet mind.
And witnessing your best friend die because of something you did—or didn’t do—is as disquieting as it gets.
You’re asking, okay, yeah, why go back, then.
The answer is opening the door.
“You came,” Kennedy says. She lingers in the doorway, holding a frosted glass with a lemon wedge stuck on top. Her long, copper hair hangs loosely around her sunburned shoulders; I can see a navy swimsuit strap underneath her pale blue sundress.
I hold up the postcard wordlessly, then glance down at it again.
One last night, before we all go.
The Hartford Cabin.
Or what was it all for?
The card stock is thick and creamy, the kind they use for wedding invitations. Expensive-looking. The words are handwritten in a deep, watery blue; a practiced, whimsical scrawl so light and airy it seems to dance off the postcard. I recognize it instantly. It’s Marilyn Monroe’s handwriting. More accurately, it’s Kennedy Ellis Hartford’s best imitation. Kennedy, in some bizarre, ironic twist, has been inexplicably obsessed with Marilyn since we were in kindergarten.
I haven’t spoken to Kennedy for a year. I shouldn’t be grinning at her, my body filling with lightness, the soles of my feet starting to bounce involuntarily like this is the reunion I want it to be. I have so many questions. Why did she leave things the way she did? What the hell was she thinking, inviting me back to the house that burned down with Emily trapped inside? And is this a private party, or was everyone else invited?
I think in the end, I had no choice. I had to come. There was no other way to get closure after how things ended. And I need that. After a year of mantras and painting and snuggling with furry animals, I need closure like a motherfucker.
“Chelsea.” Kennedy waves me over.
I resist the urge to run to her, and open the car door, taking my time retrieving my bags, then walk the gravel driveway slowly, pebbles crunching under my sandals. “No Beamer. Are your parents on a supply run?”
“They couldn’t make it.” She presses the glass to her forehead. One luxury the lake house does not have is air-conditioning. Her parents insist on some semblance of authenticity, of getting back to nature, hence the lack of technology. A whole summer of it would be torturous. But it’s a weekend home. And it was always worth unplugging now and then to get away from the noise and politics of high school and my summer job at the mall, peddling fast food along with half the rising junior class. Until now. Now, I have the awkward task of plugging back into my friends’ lives.
Kennedy sets her drink down on the porch railing and gathers me into a hug. It’s odd. I expected a burst of emotion, an apology maybe, some swelling moment of… something. Like maybe we’d broken up suddenly in the midst of a horrible tragedy and hadn’t spoken for an entire year. This should be a poignant moment in the story of us. Instead, it’s like we just saw each other a couple of days ago, around when the last day of school would have been, and now here we are, where we’d be every year, first weekend of the summer, always the first to arrive.
I press my cheek into her hair and close my eyes. Any other year, this time, Emily would have been standing behind me, politely waiting her turn, Ryan faded somewhere in the background, digging their luggage from the car. Emily was never one to pack lightly, even for a weekend trip. Kennedy’s parents would be inside, her father strutting around in a too-tight swimsuit, juggling a craft beer and fishing pole, her mother mixing up ice-cold pitchers of lemonade and sangria.
A cloud moves over the sun, and I lift my eyes to the single window on the third floor, the attic window. I picture Emily inside, and for a moment, I see her pale face looking back at me. The sun returns from the cloud cover, and the sudden blaze of light burns spots into my eyes. I press my palms against them, blinking hard against the aching sensation and the momentary panic fluttering in my chest. When my vision clears, she’s gone. Just a trick of the light.
“Come in,” Kennedy says, but her voice is drowned out by the sound of a second car winding its way down the long gravel driveway. I turn to see who’s here. Chase’s jeep screeches to a halt and he bursts out, beaming like a supernova, and before I can even get a word out, I’m swept up into a crushing bear hug.
“It’s been too long, kid,” he says with affection. Chase smells like summertime, salt and sunscreen and slushies. His attention turns to Kennedy before I’ve caught my breath. Chase is warm, genuine, a true friend, but his attention is difficult to hold.
So it won’t be just Kennedy and me this weekend. That makes sense. The lake house isn’t a romantic getaway. Any romance by the lake is as private and intimate as the secrets told here: kept among friends, and you’re never truly alone. There’s nowhere to hide in this house. Still, I can’t help a little sigh of disappointment. I want to talk about what happened. Not just with regard to Emily, although I want to talk about that, too. Someone needs to talk about that. But I also want to talk about what happened with us. It wasn’t fair to leave things the way Kennedy did. Silence is worse than the cruelest words, because it leaves room for hope, even when logically, there is none. Goodbyes are messy, and Kennedy hates a mess. But I needed her this past year. I would have assumed she needed me too. But Kennedy doesn’t need anyone. She’s made that clear with her radio silence. I just thought I was different. I know I was. Until the night of the fire.
A shiver runs through me at the thought, because seeing Kennedy and Chase again in this place, in the shadow of the lake house, surrounded by the whispering pines and under the watchful eye of the summer sun, feels too familiar. Like nothing has changed, Emily is still here with us, and we haven’t learned a thing.