Okay, so there's this, like, clear divide between where town ends, and the rest of everything starts. Lakeside Drive starts with shops and shit on one side, and then the forest starts. There’s always one building that tells me we’re heading out of town – this pink and white house that looks like a big dollhouse overlooking the lake. So I call it that.
But the Dollhouse isn’t there anymore. It's just this giant concrete hole and a few pieces of wood frame sticking up.
“What happened to the house?”
Mom turns to me. “What?”
“That pink one back there.”
Mr. Harwood looks at me for a second before turning back to the winding road. “There were a few places that got swept away in the last winter storm.” We turn around a sharp corner and the empty lot on the corner disappears. The truck shudders as it veers towards the lake, but one hard tug at the steering wheel throws us back into the right lane.
Downed trees lean into the water. Signs and fences to drive carefully for “Rocks Falling” are now up. This is not a good road for walking at night. It's kinda snakish and curvy and there's no streetlights on it anywhere.
“God, what did the storm do?” I ask.
No one answers.
“Everyone’s at the Cottage?” asks Mom.
“Mhm. Lisa’s prepping the cookout,” says Mr. Harwood.
The rest of the ride’s awkward, and Dad and Mr. Harwood catch up on things. Mom turns to me on occasion and asks if I’m doing okay. I’ve gone back to swiping left and right through my pictures.
It’s when there’s this twisting pain in my gut that I look up from my phone.
The Cottage is one of those typical small lake house everyone sees. White wood walls with a tan roof, and all the windows cover things(?) are blue. When we got the place when I was four (or maybe we're renting it. Maybe it's a timeshare? I don't care), they wanted to name it something stupid like “Lake Cottage” or “Treehouse Cottage”.
Actually, wait, one of those was mine.
Long story short, we just call it the Cottage.
But right now, I could be dying because I haven’t
SHUTTERS. THEY'RE SHUTTERS.
I could be dying because I haven't eaten anything today. Though that’s not the big issue. It's more this feeling of, like, dread. Keeping Mom's promise.
As soon as I get out of the car, I can smell something wrong. There’s smoke in the air, and I immediately assume Rory’s done something. But then Mr. Harwood trots around the side and laughs. “Lisa, what’re you doing?”
“What does it look like?” she asked. “If you want to clean the fire pit, you do it.”
Dad shakes his head and hands me his suitcase. “Jackson, you can leave it in the living room, okay?” He runs around the side to see what’s happening.
Mom and I lug the stuff in.
Light floods into the living room while the kitchen stays dark. There’re no walls between the two rooms but there’s just more windows on one side than the other. It also might not help that there’s a screened-in porch just outside the kitchen. But despite how light it is, the air smells like dust and, just, staleness. Blue and white are everywhere. This place is like Martha Stewart’s wet dream from the 80’s. It’s trying to be “beachy” but it’s more like “Grandma liked blue and white so that’s where we are now”.
But goddamn have a lot of things happened in this house.
Mom and Dad’s bedroom is on the ground floor next to Mr. and Mrs. Harwood’s. My room upstairs. I share with Rory.
“I’m gonna go unload my stuff,” I whisper, heading up the stairs.
“Jackson,” Mom whispers, and I stop. “Remember. Please?”
I sigh. “Yeah, fine. I promise, Mom.” And I head up after texting Julia I’ve made it to summer “fun”.
First task of the day – see what Rory did to the door. Because last year I saran-wrapped the bottom of the doorframe and he tripped and got a bloody nose. The year before that, he tried to jump out at me like a jump scare. That also got him a bloody nose.
This year, he hasn’t done anything. No oil on the floor, no saran wrap, nothing ready to jump out at me. The curtains are pulled back, the lights off on and everything feels
So, naturally, I’m scared shitless. And suspicious of the fucker.
I’m treading lightly as I throw my shit on my bed. My eyes are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, because I’m waiting. I unzip my bag, and I’m waiting for Rory to pop out. I’m putting my clothes away in the dresser by my bed, and I’m waiting for him to grab me from under the bed. Except the whole room's quiet. Maybe he's hiding in the bathroom.
It’s only really when I pull out my blanket do I begin feeling a little better.
And yes, it is stupid for a teenager to be carrying around a blanket like this. But it’s got stars on it and it was sewn by my grandma when I was little. And it’s so fucking huge I was able to make pillow forts with it for, like, ten years.
Now it’s just out of habit I have it. Grandma’s not gone, but I like it. It makes me feel safe, like a stuffed animal for a little kid, or a smartphone for someone born after 2000.
I pull back the top sheet on the bed and
That's when it happens.
I get dizzy.
Little black things with legs.
Little black things with legs.
Little black things with legs.
I scream. I can’t help it. I run down the stairs. Mom catches me by the kitchen.
“Woah, woah, woah. Jackson, what? What?”
My hands’re shaking. My skin crawls at just remembering them. “B-bugs.” I stick out my tongue, disgusted. I might throw up. “Big ones.”
Her eyes narrow and she goes back upstairs. They're not down here, and I do my deep breathing. My head's spinning. They're not down here. I keep reminding myself that. Falling back on the couch, I close my eyes and keep doing it.
“Jackson?” I open them, and Mom’s on the balcony over me. “Sweetheart, they’re Halloween bugs.” She holds up one, and my stomach turns. “They’re plastic. They’re not real.” Mom drops one down and it lands behind the couch. “Feel a little better?”
I peek up at it from the other side of the couch. It’s landed upside down and I’m able to see not just the hollow inside, but also the letters that says who molded it.
I look back to Mom, pointing to it. “This was the first shot,” I say, standing on the couch.
“Jackson – ”
“Mom, this isn’t cool. He's declared war.”
“Jackson, you promised me.”
“But Mom – !”
Mom’s heading down the stairs. “Jackson, please. This might be one of our last summers here. Be the bigger man and play nice.”
OH OKAY WOW THIS IS NEWS TO ME. And I'm okay with this being the last summer I ever spend with Rory.
I groan and swing myself over the couch, stepping on the plastic thing. Even knowing it's not real, my skin crawls. It's stuck to the flip-flop until I pound my foot against the back of the couch, and it bounces free.
“Oh, hi, Jackson.” I turn and Rory’s leaning against the wall, soda in hand. “Like my gift?”
God, I wanna punch him. Break his nose again. I don't think I got him that one year he pushed me out of the boat, so this could be good revenge.
“Jackson,” Mom says. She says it in that “stern parent” tone.
I grit my teeth and sigh. “Hi, Rory.”
He strolls casually over to me and smiles. He smells like his shitty $30 cologne that he thinks makes him smell better. “Good to see you, dude.” Rory pats me on the shoulder and I really want to break his fingers for fucking touching me. “We're gonna have a great summer, okay?” His smile is creepy and annoying. Rory turns, sipping his soda, and walks out the door to the back patio.
I’m not that hungry anymore.
But, God, I have never felt the urge to punch someone more than I did with Rory Harwood in that moment.