My clothed body bumps off granite rocks as it descends into the frigid depths of a Canadian lake. A swirl of red drifts on the bubbles escaping my lips. I watch each pocket of air grow smaller as it ascends toward the surface. A concussion rams my hip against a cement post. I glance to my left. Another body bobs next to mine. Recognizing it, I reach out…
I woke with a jolt knowing I was out of my depth again. I chose to believe that was the message of the dream. The nightmare, really, had haunted me at random intervals since my brother, Roy, drowned at the age of seventeen. I was fifteen at the time. We had been a team.
Roy died on Booth Island. Our family-owned island sits in a long bay that hooks off one of the largest inland lakes in the Canadian province of Ontario. Booth Island divides the long, cove cluttered body of water into Upper Bay and Lower Bay. The quarter-mile passage to the east of the island is charted as Lapp Strait. The much narrower channel to the west is Beaver Course, inhabited by its own industrious beaver. The beaver lives on the banks of Booth Island in a tidy lodge built of sticks, chinked with mud, and anchored to the steep rocky shore.
On occasion, the wind drives the waters down the three-mile reaches of Upper Bay with such ferocity that as the bumptious water passes through the two channels, Booth Island appears to steam into Lower Bay like an ocean liner. When we were still a family, we would run en masse to a wooden jetty at New Landing on the north of the island and hold hands as though we were on the deck of a passenger ship. Say the RMS Lusitania. Torpedoed like our family.
My smartphone chirped its distinctive ring from the nightstand next to my bed. The photo card I had received yesterday rested against my clock. My eyes locked on the image of my brother, forever young, leaning on the railing of the deck my mother had built after his death and christened Roy's Deck. I robo-answered my phone, knowing Roy's photo had sparked my dream.
"Boothe Treader speaking." My mom added the e to her surname, Booth, to make my given name feminine. Dad called me Baby Girl until I was twelve. My brother, Roy, called me BG to annoy me, now my dad does it for the same reason. Everyone else calls me Boo, like the note inside the photo card, scrawled in my brother's distinctive hand: Boo!
The card had been sent from a photo service in California. The return address printed in the left corner read: Roy Treader, Booth Island, Ontario, Canada. It was true he resided there under a handmade marker of cement with words etched in it by my father.
"Hey, Boo, Penny Withers, here." As though I knew more than one shiny Penny. "I know it's early," she rattled on, "I know you're due to arrive the day after tomorrow, but…" How could Penny sound so upbeat at 7:30 in the morning? How could anyone?
A tussle ensued as the phone changed hands. I was fully awake by the time the tug of war ended, my antenna twanging. Something was up. I fingered my brother's face, knowing the photo had been shopped like the others received over the past five years. The boy who killed my brother had been a photographer or played at it. Punished for his bit of malicious mischief by forced enlistment in the U.S. Marines. For all I knew, he was dead. And even if he wasn't, why torture me with these cards? I had nothing to do with his guilty plea or sentence. Besides, photo postcards seemed more like something Roy would do for laughs, thinking it was all a great joke via the astral plane. If so, it was nice that Roy was still enjoying himself.
"Ms. Treader? This is Joe, Joe Withers. Penny and I thought you should know that the OPP, sorry, Ontario Provincial Police are on Booth Island. A body got hung up on the palette at Old Landing last night. Tim O'Dell found it at dawn when he brought the generator around for you." Tim O'Dell managed Booth Island year-round. I had spoken to him a few days ago, letting him know I would be summering over.
"Who?" I croaked, sitting on the edge of the bed, my feet dangling like I was fifteen again, my stomach hollow with fear. This edgy pain in my gut was why it had taken me so long to face my brother, though the psychiatrist my mother paid had been urging me for years, babbling on about closure. I dropped the shrink, instead.
A day later, the first photo card arrived. From that day on, a postcard appeared on June 1st of the last five years. Always of Roy, always alive. I held them dear, telling no one I had received them, including my parents. Why would I? They were addressed to me, and my mother already thought I was nuts.
I am not. At least, I think not.
"We had a bad storm on the lake last night." Joe said, "So far, no one has raised a hue and cry about a missing person, suggesting the body might be someone from Upper Bay. Whoever he is, he will be missed sooner than later, then someone will report it to the OPP."
"What do you need from me?" I stood, walked to my bedroom window, Roy's photo in hand, and gazed out over the Gettysburg battlefield, sloping lawns, ancient trees, deep green, and still. My mother's family had been here during the battle, and we remained.
"Nothing, Penny thought you should know since you're all but on your way. No need to make any sort of heroic effort to arrive early. Unless…"
Off phone, Penny hissed, "For heaven's sake, Joe! Just stop." A brief scuffle, then Penny's voice. "Men! It is a male in his twenties, late twenties. That's all we know."
Penny and I had been friends since she waddled up to me at two years old and put her index finger on the end of my nose. We were summer besties from the moment she fingered me through the troubled summer that led to Roy's death and on to this day. She was lying.
I joked, "What? I suppose someone's spread ketchup on the sleeping bag on the bed and plunged a knife into the mattress?" I had the photo, sent a few years ago, Roy, one hand on the knife. Never mind that he was years dead by then.
"No, thank heavens, none of that in years. A beaver. On your new dock. Eviscerated. That is the word, right, Joe?" Joe must have answered in the affirmative. "Tim’s cleaning it up.”
“That’s all?” I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing I had tensed in anticipation of worse. It had been nine years since I made the summer trek to the island, mainly because of Roy, who bothered me everywhere but haunted me there. The upcoming trip was an attempt to come to some agreement with him; peace seemed like a longshot. The beckoning, beseeching nature of the newest photo underscored Roy’s need to be freed.
“I will be there tomorrow. I’m already packed. I just need to shove everything in the car and take off, unless you don’t think I should come at all. Pen?” I waited for Penny’s answer, worried she would warn me away, knowing I would ignore her if she did. Roy needed my help to transition to the next plane if only to stop him from posing for photos. Trust me, it sounded stupid, even to me. Still, Roy needed to go; he really did. I was less sure I could convince him. In life, Roy ran stubborn to obstinate.
“Don’t be silly, Boo, I can hardly wait to see you. Call Meg with your time of arrival. Tim will meet you at the dock whenever you arrive, but mid-day would be perfect, so you’ll have plenty of time to get all your goods up to the cabin and set up housekeeping before dark.”
Tim O’Dell lived with Meg Dixon in the Dixon farmhouse at the bottom of Lower Bay. I met Meg when I met Penny. We endured the same tragedies, including losing a brother, though Meg’s brother still lived.
After Roy’s death, her brother, Brad, left home to travel the seven seas before settling in Australia, buying a sheep station, marrying, and having children. So, it was a joy when Meg found happiness with Tim, who was a couple of years older. A Lake boy, he grew up on a thumb of land that jutted into Lower Bay a little southwest of Booth Island.
“Okay, Pen, what else haven’t you told me?” It was a guess, a good one by the long sigh that followed.
“A branch broke off in the wind last night and split Roy’s grave marker. Tim says it can be fixed.”
“Seems propitious.” The marker was Roy Treader’s only memorial. It seemed cruel that a branch disfigured Roy’s last foothold on earth right before I arrived for our long-postponed, much-needed talk. Unless Roy sensed I was coming and was signaling his unwillingness to debate the issues that shackled him to the island.
Well, he could try. This summer was for us, the opportunity to free me of my charming, athletic, semi-adorable though pesky dead brother. He needed to cough up why he continued to throw me into deep water, forever struggling to grab what was beyond my reach. Had it been the other way around, him up, me down, he would have expected the same of me.
Joe responded, “Accidents, Boothe. Nothing to get steamed up about. Tim will have the marker fixed. Nothing much has changed since you quit summering here. Bodies still float up, trees still get blown over, and the occasional animal gets in the way of a boat propeller. You take care on your drive. Penny can hardly wait to see you. And I look forward to meeting the heroine of so many of Penny’s escapades.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“As you know, squatters arrive with the spring thaw. Tim saw lights across Beaver Course on the Sturdevant property. Tim and Mike plan a safari to scare off any homeless. It’s an annual event involving hot dogs and beer on Sturdevant Beach.”
Mike Gagne, Penny’s brother, lived in one of the houses on the Gagne property. Mike and I had been a thing when we were both too young to know what being a thing meant. All the promise ended when Roy’s body bounced off the boulders clustered on the north side of the island.
“It’s not Finn Sturdevant, is it? You know he killed my brother, right? I mean, really, tell me he’s not the squatter, and he hasn’t killed again.”
Joe laughed. I was working out what was so funny when Joe added, “No, Boothe, drowned fisherman, dead beaver, tree branch, squatter, that’s all,” Joe answered. “Remember to let Tim know your estimated time of arrival.”
I was still deciding whether to trust a man who called me Boothe when Joe hung up.
Over the summers on Booth Island, my mother and I learned to pack a season’s worth of clothes and household items into the maw of our trusty SUV while leaving just enough room for a cooler and groceries. Now, I had the whole passenger seat for overage, including the metal Star Wars lunchbox containing the full set of Roy’s postcards.
Two hours after the telephone call, I drove down our tree-lined lane. At the main road, I turned left to catch US-15 north. I had a carefully prepared grocery list for my food stop in Watertown, New York, before crossing the Thousand Island Bridge into Ontario and a gift list for a stop at the Duty Free Shop on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River.
I tuned the radio to a news talk program and zoned out until my stomach let out a growl. I heeded its demand, stopping for lunch at the flagstone faced, early-1960s diner in Roscoe, New York.
In the car, I shuffled through the photos in the lunchbox for the one of Roy holding the diner’s door open. He wore a happy smile on his young face under the roadside sign, redesigned since my mother and I last lunched there. I asked inside when the new sign had been installed. The answer was four years ago. And, for the life of me, I couldn’t think of anyone other than my immediate family who knew that lunching at Roscoe’s was a tradition.
While I waited for a table, I asked if anyone recognized the boy in my photo. No one did, though one person pointed out how retro Roy’s clothes were. Yes! The picture had been photoshopped. I knew that! I also knew I was being gaslighted. I got it. But Roy needed me. I got that, too.
In the middle of a Reuben sandwich and French fries, I noted how late it had gotten. It would be dark before I made Dixon Landing. I called Meg Dixon. No one answered. So, I left a message that I planned to stay the night in Gananoque, Ontario, on the St. Lawrence River, then be at Dixon Landing by ten the next morning. I asked for a return call if the time was inconvenient.
As I drove north for the first time since graduating high school, I considered how Roy’s death had changed my world. The suddenness and manner of Roy’s death had wobbled me off-kilter as though my axis had shifted. I think it tilted Dad’s, too. He and his new wife moved to Montreal as soon as they married, only six months after Roy’s death. The signatures on my parents’ divorce were barely dry.
Mom and I kept the ancient schedule for three more years. We arrived at Booth Island two days after school recessed for the summer and returned to Gettysburg two days before school began.
Mother kept to the Booth tradition of throwing a dance party at the end of each week. Party nights, people boated to the island from around Lower and Upper Bay to enjoy food, drink, and dancing under the stars. Roy enjoyed them, too, from his usual perch in a hickory tree that hung out over his deck. Mom brushed her shoulders whenever she stepped onto the deck. I gave a wink into the branches. And though he was there, visible to me, island summers were never the same.
Nine years is a long time to go without dancing. According to Tim O’Dell, the unused dance floor rotted until it teeters rakishly on its foundation. In the intervening years, Meg Dixon’s father died, leaving Meg the family businesses of farming and maintaining Dixon Landing. Penny Gagne went to college for a semester returning with Joe Withers. Mom went for her MBA and fell in love with hospitality management. A natural fit if there ever was one.
Mom and I graduated from college the same year. Mom got her dream job days before I started work as an editor for a prestigious publishing company. After a few years, I snuck editing gigs in on the side, sending my book recommendations to various publishers. I developed a reputation for readable, publishable books that occasionally made the bestseller lists.
As of last New Year’s Day, my gigs became my job, finally freeing me to return to Booth Island for the summer. The island was far enough from New York City, where I had worked, and Gettysburg, where I now lived, that a casual weekend or even a two-week visit was out of the question. I kept up my friendships via phone, social pages, and letters. Until one day, I realized I was in hiding, as though I had hied myself to a nunnery and that I missed the summer migration and lake friends.
The lack of reliable cellphone and internet reception on the island was the only stumbling block to spending the whole summer up there. I did my research. A café in the closest reasonable-sized town to the island offered internet. I planned to make all calls, upload and download new gigs, do all my emailing, and grocery buying during weekly trips into the village.
In between, I would rely on the gas generator to provide electricity. At my mother’s request, Tim installed one just outside the kitchen door. Mom paid Tim to wire an outlet in the cabin’s kitchen, another in the front room, and an electric light in each of the cabin’s three rooms. So, with a flip of a switch, I could charge my computer then edit anywhere on the island, like the front porch, Roy’s Deck, or the promontory. Roy was free to join me, though he never could spell worth spit.
I would miss my mother’s company. Liza Booth Treader dropped my father’s surname as soon as I hit eighteen. When I announced my business, Mom took wing. Now, Liza Booth was the majordomo for a movie star owned eco-resort in the Caribbean. The fact that the movie star and my vivacious, rambunctious mother were of an age tells the rest of the story. I expected to be invited to some weird ceremony on a pink sand beach before the end of the year.
Three days ago, as Mom and I sat in our beat-up SUV awaiting the movie star’s private jet, she handed me an envelope. In it was the deed of transfer for Booth Island. Mom paid the necessary transfer taxes and this year’s property taxes, or the movie star had. Either way, the family island was mine. As Mom exited the car for the waiting jet, she said, “Booth Island is precious. Give a long think before you decide its future.”
By the island’s future, Mom meant keeping it or selling it. That decision depended on Roy, not me. No sale was in the stars until we resolved his status and mine, too, for that matter.
My father, Dr. Jack Treader, is an anthropology professor at a university in Montreal and a sought-after field site manager. His wife of eleven years, Misty Lapp, is busy raising the second set of Treaders. A pair of twin boys, the Treader version of an heir and a spare. One to replace my brother Roy and another, in case one died--like Roy. The twins, Jake and John, or as my mother called them, Jake and Flake, were ten and barely human.
I didn’t like Misty, never had. She took my dad from me. I still found it hard to believe that Dad left Mom, or maybe not. Dealing with my over-the-top mom might make a man long for someone more grounded. Misty qualified; she could stop a lightning bolt cold.
Dad knew I was summering on the island. He seemed glad of it, muttering something about finding the one fossil that resolved history. Though I had no idea what he meant, I sometimes felt like a fossil, dried up, empty, and waiting to be discovered.
Roy’s death stopped my progression. I was unfinished. Everyone but me had moved on, Meg, Penny, Mom, and Dad. Mom’s oft-repeated wisdom was that one should continue to write new chapters until the book came to a climactic but satisfactory end. I make my living editing other people’s endings. Sometimes I rewrite or rework the closing scene until it is memorable. Happily working out other’s woes, I ignore my own story and drift.
Okay, I am a mess.
I still struggle with how readily my parents accepted my brother’s death. It was unseemly to me that they split, found new lives, new loves, pushed me away, and, in my father’s case, made new sons.
Oh, whine, whine, whine. Some would say I was lucky. I was free to spend my summer at a place and with a brother that I loved and who loved me. I had editing gigs lined up. The first was for my favorite romance author, who, like other romance writers, contracted with me to shape their novels. Perhaps they appreciated that I liked my heroes relatable, a little silly and everyman, not six-packed hunks with flowing blond locks.
After my grocery stop in Watertown, NY, and at the Duty Free Shop, I parked under the porte cochére of a chain hotel in Gananoque. It was dusk as predicted. After a quick seafood dinner at the onsite restaurant, I returned to my hotel room and phoned Penny.
Her husband, Joe Withers, answered, “Tim got your message. He’ll keep an eye out for you starting at 10:00 tomorrow morning.” Dixon Landing was in clear sight of the Dixons’ white clapboard farmhouse situated on a hill overlooking Lower Bay. “The OPP identified the body. Fisherman. His boat was bobbing around in the marsh in Upper Bay north of Sturdevant Peninsula. He was fishing alone. Lots of beer cans floating in the bottom of the boat. The beaver apparently tangled either with a fisher, our version of a big weasel, or a boat motor.”
“You’re not buying fisher?” I asked, amused that Joe felt he had to define fisher for me.
“The capabilities of fishers to kill everything from vampires to cattle are somewhat overrated,” Joe chuckled. “Though, the crazed carnivores are hell on porcupines. I vote for boat motor.”
“Do you think…”
“Everyone on Lower Bay knows you’re coming to the island for the summer. But do I think any of what happened has anything to do with you? Doubtful, Boothe. It has been twelve years. Finn Sturdevant was a teen when your brother died. Besides, this is the last place on earth he would show up, eh?”
“I suppose you’re right? And there is that restraining order stopping him from being anywhere near anyone in my family.”
I knew Joe was right. I knew it when I asked the question, but in my drowning dreams, the face floating just out of reach was that of the dark-haired, dark-eyed outsider that killed my brother. Okay, accidentally killed my brother. Pranked him to death. Splitting hairs, Roy was as dead as if Sturdevant had held him underwater while enjoying the view above the waterline until the last bubbles escaped Roy’s lungs.
“If it makes you feel better, the OPP thinks some fisherman found the beaver floating, and, not wanting it to stink up his boat, hefted it onto New Landing, assuming it would be found. And it was. Honk for Tim when you arrive. And Boothe, everything is fine here.”
“Call me Boo, Joe, please? And, say, hey, to Penny for me.”
“Penny is currently working on her list of things to do, beginning with the moment you arrive. If I were you, I would worry about getting any work done. She is primed to fill every available minute of every available day.”
Penny was as effervescent as my mother, except rounder. Her curves made her adorable with her reddish hair, blue eyes, and gamin grin. From the moment we met at two, one chubby, one lanky, we were inseparable. Penny was a full-time mother now, which had only softened her more as displayed in photos and during live chats. I grinned, thinking of a whole summer of Penny time.
I turned the hotel room television onto a channel carrying my favorite Canadian series. Unless I went to Penny’s house and watched hers, this was the last television I would see for months. I woke, the TV still on, three episodes later in the series, and crawled between the hotel’s crisply clean Egyptian cotton sheets, those, too, would be the last for the summer, and slept.
I dreamed of my brother’s grave on the eastern promontory of the island with its view across Lapp Strait to the cliffs of the Lapp Peninsula. Beneath the cement marker, a predominantly red cookie tin decorated with Christmas elves held each family member’s precious reminder of Roy. In my dream, a dark-haired head with dead, black eyes rose up from the grave, cleaving the cement marker into two pieces with the sharp point of the single horn that grew out of his forehead.
Roy would have been twenty-nine this year; he never saw eighteen.