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The Lake House Part 1
A haunting family drama
The Santos siblings went to the lake for a relaxing escape, but by the end of their trip it’s a race to escape the vacation home with their lives.
Enjoy this short five-part series through the holidays. Halloween may be over, but I’d still like a chance to scare you.
Only the whispers of victims long since forgotten kept the lake company. Just beyond the water, houses nestled among tall pines and aspen trees. Decades ago, summer laughter echoed off the trees as children splashed in the chilly lake. The motor of leisure boats roared to life. They sped across the mirror surface of the water, sloshing the mountain runoff. At night, lights seemed to decorate the trees, lighting up the bottom half of them like Christmas as visitors enjoyed the serene nature, sipping on cocktails, cuddling on the couch with a movie.
Through all the joy, the sorrow was missed. A visitor would drown in the lake but was soon forgotten as new families arrive. The grief was wiped away, bundled up, and washed out in the laundry by the cleaning crew.
Some summer drownings occurred as the season drew to an end. A few bodies were never found, like the poor body of the young Zhou girl, a disappearance that broke the family apart. She, like others never seen again, had sunk to the lake floor with only weeds and decaying flesh to keep them company. The summer season ended, snow began to fall on the ground, and the lake remained untouched. The bodies chilled deep underwater as storms pounded against the missing posters, smearing the ink until their faces became unrecognizable.
Families mourned. Condolences were given and life went on. Tragedy struck time and time again until the houses sprinkling the shore grew heavy with grief. No amount of scrubbing to wipe it away.
Over the years, season visitors failed to return. They grew unsettled by the pain soaked into the dirt. Residents who used to stay year-round couldn’t shake the chill of winter off even after the snow melted. They moved to warmer places, places they didn’t feel the need to check over their shoulder in the dark, didn’t have an urge to lock their bedroom doors or wake in the middle of the night to check that their children still slept in their beds. Parents urged their children out of the water, they shielded them from the lapping shore. If they were to be asked why, there would be no explanation, just an urge to keep them close. Accidents happened on the lake, some careless, some unavoidable, all terrifying.
The lake shore, once dotted with busy houses and docks, all walking distance to the crystal blue water, now stood uninhabited. Every house, old and new, large and small, withered away under the beating sun of summer only to then be buried under snow in the winter.
The Santos siblings hadn’t visited the lake since they were kids. Their parents used to rent the same three-storied Lake House, flanked with wood paneling, and a large round cupola serving as the third-floor attic, with a wrap-around porch connecting the house to a two-car garage. As children, the siblings had spent summers huddled together in the attic or rolling around in the now overgrown lawn before the sun had grown too hot and they rushed down the pebbled shore into the crisp lake.
But they stopped the annual visits abruptly thirty years ago.
Driving those same mountain roads once again, the, now adult middle sibling, Aleksa, recalled joyful summers, the beach, and late nights. She remembered the house, large and beautiful. All of it, absolutely perfect.
So why had it been so long since they’d visited?
“Mom and Dad died.” The youngest, Luca, suggested when Aleksa posed that exact question on the drive through the mountains. “We’ve never gone without Mom and Dad.”
Aleksa shook her head. She squeezed the steering wheel and stole a worried glance at the eldest, Rianon, who had been staring unfocused out the window the whole trip.
Luca watched Aleksa’s reflection in the rearview mirror from his seat in the back, an eyebrow raised in anticipation. Matching his olive complexion, Aleksa was considered the beauty of the family, with her grandmother’s slim nose and green eyes.
With a sigh, she tucked a dark curl behind her ear, the same black hair as all three siblings, and replied to Luca’s suggestion, “That’s not it.” She shifted in her seat. She couldn’t understand what had come over her when she put on jeans she hadn’t worn since she’d gotten pregnant with her son a few years ago. They were tight and she just wanted to get to the house and replace them with the worn leggings she’d packed. “We stopped going before Mom got cancer. I was, what? Eight the last time we’d visited?”
“No.” Luca scoffed. “Shit. That would’ve made me six. It hasn’t been that long.”
They both looked to their eldest sister for her input. Rianon’s hair was secured in a bun at the base of her neck, a style she’d worn more often, trapping and taming curls that used to frame her round face. She hadn’t spoken the whole five-hour drive, just watched the rolling California hills transform into the dense forests of the mountains. Her hands remained clasped in her lap, forefinger spinning the engagement ring on her fourth finger. The wedding ring had been buried with her husband’s body, a piece of her forever with him.
Aleksa bit her lower lip, eyes flashing to her brother’s reflection in the mirror. He shrugged, jostling the hood of his sweatshirt so it rose over his ears. The logo had long faded from the cotton and the stitching of the front pocket continued to become undone each time his fists pulled the fabric taut. Aleksa cut a sharp look at that logo. The irrational anger at the old sweatshirt caught her off guard. Why did Luca insist on wearing that sweatshirt? Why not just wear the numerous gifts he’d received, subtle hints from friends and family? She brushed off the harsh response, aware that she was bothered by his noncommittal shrug more than the ridiculous sweatshirt.
“What do you think, Ri?” She pushed for an answer. “Why did we stop coming to the Lake House?”
“We haven’t been since Mom’s accident.” Rianon didn’t take her eyes off the passing trees as she spoke. She appeared so delicate in the black turtle neck as she plucked at the heart pendant hanging from a thin gold chain around her neck. “Dad became busy with book tours and Mom refused to come up alone.”
The talk of their mother’s accident had occurred so frequently growing up, that the siblings found themselves nodding as if remembering, but in reality, they didn’t know much. They knew something happened at the Lake House, but not what exactly. Her arm had been in a sling for a week and it took twice as long for the awful green bruise to disappear from her cheek. Their mother’s accident. Dad’s book tours. That sounded right.
Aleksa turned into the driveway and parked in front of the double-wide garage. All three climbed out of the car.
The house looked just as the siblings remembered, right down to the Adirondack chairs on the grassy lawn and the tall third-floor windows overlooking the lake. The white paint had chipped and grayed, windows had been shuttered, and pine needles littered the porch steps. Despite its weather-beaten state, the house seemed to await their return with open arms. Behind them, the water lapped at the rocky shore. The fresh scent of pine wafted through the air. Luca smiled at the porch swing beside the front door. A strong breeze got it moving with a creak.
The sun set behind the mountains. The view of the lake was breathtaking, but the Santos siblings didn’t notice. Their eyes were on the Lake House. The shaded porch and darkened windows beckoned them. The house beamed down at them, overjoyed with their return, old friends reunited. The three siblings couldn’t look away if they tried. They didn’t notice the heaviness in the air, the sorrow that stained the ground from the shore to the porch steps. The spell of the house entranced them and beckoned them into the safety of indoors. They gathered their luggage and walked in a line onto the porch. Aleksa first and Luca in the back, surrounding Rianon, protecting her.
The front door swung open and Aleksa hurried through the entryway to drop her bag on the living room couch.
“Do any of you want the master bedroom?” she asked her siblings and eyed the room that used to be their parents.
Neither of them answered. Aleksa’s head ached from the drive. Her stomach growled with hunger. She sighed. “Ri, what do you think?”
Standing beside the master bedroom, Rianon opened the door and peered inside. The eldest sibling should choose. That’s how it had always been.
“Just decide, Lex.” Luca shoved past both of them and discarded his bag on the couch. His heavy footsteps echoed in the still interior as he disappeared into the kitchen.
“Take it,” Aleksa muttered. She swallowed another wave of irritation and started up the stairs to settle her bags in one of the other bedrooms.
With the little sunlight remaining, the three of them toured the house. Aleksa recognized the couch, brown leather, color worn lighter on the center of the cushions, but had the fireplace always been painted white?
Thirty years had come and gone and all memory of the house seemed to have been wallpapered over by passing time. Friends, parties, graduations. Heartbreaks and mistakes. Children, marriage, and, in Luca’s case, jail. So much time, so many memories. They no longer recalled the cow-printed rug in the master bedroom and the forest green cabinets in the kitchen. Though, Aleksa was fairly certain the dripping leak under the sink was new. She dropped a towel she found in an upstairs closet over the small puddle of water collecting on the cupboard floor. Then, she stood and examined the gifts left by the rental company on the counter, a bottle of wine, a bag of caramel corn, and a map of the town set up around a leather-bound guest book, the cover inky black.
On the second floor, two bedrooms and a study sat dusty and cool. The girls used to share the bunk beds in the first bedroom. Luca had often dragged the mattress from the second bedroom to the floor beside his sisters.
Thirty years later, he didn’t remember how the wooshing of the lake water breaking against the shore had frightened him. Aleksa could barely picture that scared little boy when she looked at the large bulky man beside her, his shoulders stiff and face often unsmiling. No one would ever guess that the sound of the water crashing against the shore left young Luca trembling and in tears. His parents slept downstairs, but his older sisters were in the room next to him. With a blanket and pillow held against his chest with one arm and the thin twin-sized mattress grasped in his other hand, he hurried to the safety of his sisters, finally able to sleep with their steady breathing drowning out the sound of the water.
After examining the pool table with Luca, Aleksa halted at the bottom of the attic stairs. Cold washed over her, numbing her fingers and toes, and cooling the warm feelings that she’d been enjoying while re-discovering the house. They used to play in the attic together, all three of them, but she couldn’t picture the third-story room, and certainly didn’t want to go up there. Cold chilled in her bones as she stared up the steps.
No, she didn’t want to go up there.
“What’re you doing?” Luca stood behind her. He too stared up the dimly lit staircase.
“The attic.” Aleksa’s true feelings caught in her throat. She hesitated to share her fear. It would sound childish, like her daughter afraid of the monster that lived in her closet.
“Have you gone up there yet?” Rianon joined them.
Luca shook his head, casting a sideways glance at his sister. Rianon wrapped her arms around herself. She stared at the closed door at the top of the stairs. Darkness splashed on the first few steps while they all remained rooted at the bottom of the staircase. Aleksa found herself wanting to be anywhere, but here.
She wanted to get away from those stairs but didn’t know where she would go. Not home. She dreaded her broken home. Just the thought of it twisted in her gut, her world caving in around her, but she had no room to complain. Her children and husband were still alive. Broken, but still breathing. Guilt swirled with grief, bringing tears to her eyes.
Finally, Luca clapped his hands, breaking the silent tension. Aleksa and Rianon flinched, startled by the noise, but it broke the spell the attic had cast on them. All three turned away from the staircase. Luca rubbed his palms together, the sound of his dry skin filling the quiet spaces around them.
“Who’s down for some food?” He raised his voice louder than necessary as he led the way back down the hall, toward the kitchen.
With the attic seemingly dismissed, the siblings discussed what they wanted delivered. Like Luca’s voice, their footsteps bounced off the empty walls, a distraction from the icy pull of the attic.
They ordered from an Italian restaurant in town. The Lake House didn’t appear as a delivery option. Aleksa refreshed the web page and tried again. When the error still appeared, she called.
“Where are you?” the teen boy on the phone asked.
Aleksa repeated the Lake House address.
The other line fell silent.
“Hello?” Aleksa said. After a moment she checked the call. It had ended. Aleksa frowned and dialed again. While it rang, she moved to the front porch to find better reception but the bars didn’t change, still the same three she had before. The call must have dropped at the restaurant’s end.
The same voice picked up and greeted her. Aleksa identified herself as the woman from the Lake House.
“Oh,” the boy squeaked. “Hold on.”
The other line shuffled. Then, a deeper voice spoke. “We don’t usually deliver to that side of the lake,” he said.
“Really?” Aleksa’s stomach rumbled. “Why not?”
“Don’t get many orders from there.”
She recalled seeing a grocery store in town, but that was almost thirty minutes away and then they would still have to cook the food.
“Do you know of any other place that would deliver to me?” she asked.
The man clicked his tongue and then sighed. “I’ll send someone over. It’ll take a while.”
Relieved, Aleksa thanked him several times while the man grunted, pushing her off the phone. She hung up and walked back into the house, wondering how much cash Rianon and Luca had. All three of them should be able to come up with a generous tip.
“Dinner’s on its way.” She joined them in the kitchen. Luca had retrieved a bottle of tequila and a couple cans of chopped pineapple from his bag. He grinned as he displayed his contribution to his sisters. Aleksa returned the smile while Rianon started mixing drinks for them all.
Sitting around the dining table, the sweet fruit brought all three of them back to their teenage years, when Luca had snuck the same ingredients from their parents’ liquor cabinet on New Year’s Eve and the three of them clinked plastic cups. Aleksa ended up missing the actual new year. With her head in Rianon’s lap, booze weighing down her eyelids, and her sister’s fingers running through her hair, she had fallen asleep before the clock struck twelve.
Now, in the Lake House, the three siblings clinked glasses once again to another evening of just the three of them, to their bond of love, to their support of one another. What else were siblings for?
While waiting for their food, both cans of the pineapple had been opened and sat beside the now quarter-filled bottle of tequila. Rianon rested her head on Aleksa’s shoulder, eyes closed, a relief to both Luca and Aleksa. Their eldest sister hadn’t been sleeping much.
“Why’d Mom and Dad always pick this house?” Luca popped a chip in his mouth, a package opened during their road trip. He wiped the powdered flavor off his fingers on the side of his pants.
Aleksa raised an eyebrow and shot him a sideways glance, surprised by the question. “It’s right on the lake. It’s kind of like that place up north, the one we went to for Dad’s sixtieth birthday. Remember?” She ended her thought with a shrug.
Luca shook his head.
“Come on.” Aleksa smiled. “There was that giant taxidermy bear in the basement. It wasn’t that long ago, like ten years—“ She stopped short, flinching with the realization.
“Relax.” Luca grabbed another handful of chips from the bag. “I was at Parkview Penitenery ten years ago. Not like that’s a secret.”
“I know.” She mumbled and checked her watch. Dinner had been ordered an hour ago. “So much was going on then. I was planning a wedding. Ri was pregnant with Analee. Dad was sick.”
“And I was the screw-up loser.” He raised his glass with a smirk that didn’t reach his eyes.
“Not a screw-up,” Rianon muttered as she lifted her head off Aleksa’s shoulder. “Parkview was a blessing. Finally knocked some sense into you. Pleading guilty was the first smartest thing you did since…” She paused with a small frown furrowed on her brow. “Well, the first smart thing ever.”
Luca chuckled and shook his head. He raised his glass, just remnants of his drink left. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” Rianon whispered and pressed her own glass against her brother’s.
Aleksa glanced at her phone again to check the time. Where was the food?
Rianon poured more tequila into their glasses.
“To starting over.” The eldest sibling raised a toast. “May my new life work out well, just like yours did, little brother.”
“Better!” Luca laughed. “You’re damn miles ahead of me.”
Rianon scoffed as she took a drink, the sound echoing in her glass.
Aleksa watched her older sister. Rianon’s eyes had begun to droop. They were puffy from lack of sleep and abundant tears. Her whole face sagged. Dry patches of skin had left her chin and cheeks ashy and lines had formed between her eyebrows. Aleksa hadn’t noticed her older sister had aged until then. Losing your entire family would age anyone, she supposed.
Aleksa’s phone buzzed under her hand, startling her. For an exciting moment she thought she’d see the number of the restaurant, hopeful that they were informing her that the delivery was close. The pineapple and tequila sat heavy in her stomach when she read the screen. She leaped to her feet. She had to answer but didn’t want to talk in front of her siblings. “It’s Shane.” She excused herself and retreated to the master bedroom. Luca gave her a small wave.
“It’s been a while. Should we call the restaurant?” he asked Rianon.
Aleksa didn’t hear the answer. She turned the corner into the entry hall that branched off into the master bedroom.
“Hey, Baby,” Shane answered her call.
Aleksa swallowed what little moisture she had in her mouth. Her face tingled from the tequila. The pet name latched onto her gut, grasping and clawing its way to her heart. She wouldn’t let it.
After the accident, with Rianon in and out of the hospital, Aleksa had been thrust into the eldest sibling role. She worried about Luca after his roommates kicked him out and he had to sleep on Rianon’s couch, mourned the loss of her brother-in-law and niece, and then Shane made his confession. Aleksa hadn’t even told Rianon or Luca what had happened. She’d tell them when the divorce papers had been filed, when she wrapped her mind around being single again, around the thought of being a single mother while her husband cared for that waitress’s baby. With Shane speaking in her ear, she missed the stronger version of her older sister.
“Are the kids down?” Aleksa asked.
“Jess went out like a light,” Shane replied. “Nora had a harder time of it. She misses you.”
Aleksa released a long breath as tears pricked at her eyes. She’d been told her life would change after having kids, but no one told her that her entire being would be wrapped around a six and four-year-old’s finger. Every time she left them, a piece of herself stayed behind. But she had to leave. Rianon needed this trip and Aleksa had to get away from Shane or risk scratching his eyes out.
“How’s Ri?” Shane continued when she didn’t reply.
“She’s tired. Hasn’t been speaking too much. The same really.” She never expected to hold a normal conversation with her cheating husband ever again, but a decade of practice allowed her mouth to move on its own while blood pounded in her ears. She pressed her free hand against her stomach to keep it from trembling. Outside the bedroom, Luca and Rianon had grown quiet. “The house looks just the same. It’s kind of eerie actually like we’ve just stepped back in time.” Why had she said that? It was like Aleksa had already forgotten all the foreignness. She frowned and shook her head. Just words to finish this conversation. She wanted off the phone.
“Sounds like a good thing to me. You all could use a little time travel right now, before this mess.”
What mess did he refer to? The one he caused or the car accident? Aleksa bit her tongue to stop the flood of pain from pouring out her mouth. She couldn’t do this now. Rianon and Luca would hear. The weekend was about Rianon’s healing, not hers.
“Yeah.” The word was breathy and clipped.
“The house can take you all back to those happy times,” Shane continued.
Happy times. The small hairs on Aleksa’s arms rose as Shane’s words echoed in her head. A happy time at the Lake House. Thinking of the house chilled her as if the cool water of the lake washed over her. But that’s what she had been telling everyone, how happy she had been going to the lake, how happy the whole family had been.
But Aleksa couldn’t recall a specific memory from her time at the Lake House. She’d only been eight, but that wasn’t too young to remember summers spent here. Sure, she remembered going, remembered the rooms, the lake. The whole atmosphere of the house was familiar, even if the rug beneath her feet wasn’t, but she couldn’t recall a single happy memory.
Aleksa peered over her shoulder, and her heart suddenly pounded as a cold sweat seeped from her pores.
Why had she done that? Nobody was in the room with her, of course. Aleksa knew that, but still, relief washed over her when she discovered the reading chair in the corner empty, her parent’s bed made and undisturbed. She licked her lips and decided to get off the phone. Between Shane’s betrayal and the tequila rolling around in her empty stomach, her imagination had run wild.
Aleksa said, “Dinner should be here any minute. I gotta go.”
Shane exhaled slowly on the other end. “Sure. Have fun tonight. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Tell the kids I love them. Give them a kiss from me.”
She ended the call and glanced once more at the reading chair, a simple armchair with gray upholstery and oak legs. Satisfied, she walked out, closing the door behind her.
Happy memories? That’s what Aleksa believed she had before coming back to the lake. Her parents had told stories so many times about running down to the beach and splashing in the water, staying up late watching movies. They had become Aleksa’s memories, but now that she visited again, now that she tried to picture herself sitting on the couch with her family or slipping into her bathing suit in the attic room, excited for the cool crisp water of the lake, she came up empty.
As the door clicked shut, Aleksa was honest with herself for the first time since they had arrived at the Lake House. She didn’t remember cheerful and warm times with her family here. In fact, she could only recall fear.
Continue reading Part 2
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