They didn’t have crabapple trees in the city. At least, there were no crabapple trees to be seen in the five block walk between home and school, nor in the park with the swing that Dad would take her to on Saturdays. There were certainly no trees around the hospital on the day before Millie had left for her grandparents’ cabin by the lake.
Millie’s room–the room that had once been her father’s as a child–smelled of old books and mothballs. The first time she’d stayed there for the summer, Millie had been afraid of the room, of being alone there at night with no light from the streetlamps, no sounds of cars or air conditioning. The tapping of branches against the window and the wooshing of the wind through the leaves were sounds she’d never heard in the city.
She knew there weren’t any monsters under her bed at home, but out here in the country, she wasn’t so sure. The man at the gas station had once told her that a creature, big black and snakelike, lived in the lake just beyond her Baba’s shed. Millie hadn’t slept for a week after that. But then Dad had told her that he’d met the Lake Monster. One time as a child, he’d capsized in the middle of the lake and gotten trapped underwater by the sail of his windsurfer. He’d said he would have drowned if the Lake Monster hadn’t lifted the sail. After that, Millie hadn’t been scared anymore, not of the monster that had rescued her dad, and not of the room.
Millie slid off the bed, rumpling the duvet as she padded softly down the carpeted hallway, taking special care to avoid the creaking spots on the floor. Pad down the stairs, skipping off the edge of each step, her hand floating just above the banister. Soft, through the den, skirting the couch, lumpy like a paisley cow under the afghan. There, by the doorway to the kitchen, she paused. Nana’s voice floated in from the breakfast nook, fluttering as she moved between the coffeepot and toaster, and Baba’s so much like the settling creaks of the cabin in the evenings.
“How much longer? Will he wake up?” asked Nana.
“They don’t know, they say they don’t know,” said Baba.
“We can’t let them pull the-“
“Shhh. We won’t.”
On the kitchen counter was a foil-wrapped package under a post-it marked Millie in Nana’s loopy letters. A tuna sandwich, with crust that made Millie think of tree bark. Mom would always cut the crust off Millie’s sandwiches, and on Saturdays, she and Dad would feed them to the fish in the pond at the park. But Nana didn’t know that.
Millie’s stomach gurgled. She took the tuna sandwich onto the back porch and sat on the step facing the lake to eat her lunch, being very careful to nibble around crust. Between the porch and the water lay a stretch of dandelion-spotted lawn and the sharp drop of the river-cliff, hidden by a line of hedges. By the shed, there was a gap in the foliage – the staircase Baba had built down to the beach. Dad had always told her to be careful whenever she danced down those steps in her bathing suit, had said that they were a disaster in the making.
Looking down, Millie saw the remaining crusty outline of her sandwich. She wondered if Lake Monsters ate bread like the koi in the park did. A sudden desire to ask began to well and harden in her stomach. Perhaps the Lake Monster remembered her father. She balled up the bread crust, slipped it in her pocket, and made her way to the stairs.
The lake glittered grey-blue in the summer sunlight, yet the breeze still had a biting chill as it tousled Millie’s hair. In her orange shorts, she shivered, hesitation creeping in her mind. Perhaps she should comb the beach for fossils instead. Dad had always liked that. She was pretty sure there were no fossils to be found in the hospital ward.
Head bent, Millie scoured the beach. Grey rocks, black rocks, pink, brown, and green; flat, shiny, round, striped, and speckled. There were bits of glass washed so smooth by the lake as to be little more than sparkling pebbles, the broken half-shells of mussels, and tufts of floating reeds. Millie trod slowly, picking up and turning each stone over to inspect its surface. The ones she deemed pretty, by virtue of their shape or novelty, she cradled softly in her sweater.
By the time Millie looked up from her task, the sun was in its last long stretch of the day, casting long striped shadows and burning gold onto each leaf caught in its path. For all the stones she’d collected, Millie hadn’t found a single fossil for her father. She felt her lungs tighten and clamped her eyelids shut as she forced herself to breathe slowly. She was seven—a big girl now. She was brave. She would find something for Dad, something to tell him, and he would laugh and pick her up and sing My girl, my girl, my girl.
Millie walked back to the staircase and arranged her rocks in a pile next to the bottom step. Then, thinking of passing skunks in the night, she decided to put them in her pockets instead. Inside the shed, at the very back, was her father’s windsurfing board, lying forlorn from a year of disuse on its wooden rollers. The mast and sail had been detached and leaned in a cobwebbed corner.
She stood in the center of the shed for a moment, sunlight from the doorway falling just short of her sneakers. How many times she had stood there, watching Dad pull the life jackets from the top shelf and inspect the sail for holes. She remembered how he’d explain each step to her as he went about tightening straps and carrying equipment onto the beach. She began to retrace those steps in her mind. I’m big now, she thought. I can do this.
It took her nearly an hour, but Millie managed to half drag, half roll the board out of the shed and down to the waterfront while there was still daylight. Launching the craft was a harder task, and Millie squelched up to her shorts in the shallows trying to mount it. Dad had always held the board steady for her to heave herself onto, but now whenever she tried to lift a knee the waves would tug the board away and unbalance her, sending her foot splashing back into the water. Millie would have given up, but the knot in her throat was tightening up again, and she knew she needed to continue.
With a yelp, Millie pulled her chest onto the board and managed to clamber first a foot, then a leg and a hip on to it. She wiggled herself into a more-or-less balanced position, sitting in the center of the board with her legs trailing in the water on either side. From here, she began to paddle. The slowness of her pace began to frustrate her, and she began to kick her legs in the water, but the board went no faster. Her splashes sounded empty with no reply.
The sun was going down now, the shore growing ever farther from the figure on the board. Millie kept her eyes on the waves before her, searching for a shadow beneath the water. By now she’d lost track of her kicking and her legs sat still in the water as the growing wind and waves pulled her along.
She began to worry. What if she couldn’t find the Lake Monster? In all her summers spent swimming in these waters, he’d never shown himself to her.
What if he wasn’t real?
And now, as she looked back at the shore, she began to feel scared. From out here, the cabin looked only as tall as her finger and the clouds in the sky had turned grey. Her mouth felt heavy and warm. She’d never been this far out before, especially not alone. Thoughts of her parents began to leak in, of beds with light-blue blankets and beeping machines, of hushed voices whispering words she didn’t understand. Millie shook her head as if to keep them at bay.
There–a flash of black on the horizon, too far away to make out. Millie gasped. The wind was picking up now. Could it be? A swanlike neck curving out of the choppy waves? She leaned forward, squinting for a closer look. The board was bucking in the water now. She could almost make it out. Maybe if she leaned out just little farther.
Suddenly, cold. Dark—the sun switched off. Millie heard nothing, though she knew she was screaming. Water rushed into her mouth, pressing into her chest. It seized her by the heavy fabric of her sweater. It clung to her and pulled off her shoes as she kicked desperately, the precious stones in her pockets dragging her down. She was tired, so tired of thrashing. She could see tiny stars in her vision, like the bubbles rising from her, the precious air in them escaping as they burst. Were they rising, or was she sinking?
She felt a warmth flow over and around her. It pushed her up, higher, higher. She broke the surface with a gasp. Light. Sound. They hit her with a harshness that almost made Millie wish to sink into the water again. The wind buffeted her face in the twilight, stinging her cheeks. The rocks were gone from her pockets. She was clinging to the windsurfer now. The board’s surface was rough and dug into her soft palms, making them raw, but she gripped it hard and dared not let up. Slowly now, she began to kick, steering herself back to shore.
Millie dragged herself up the rocky beach, having abandoned the surfer once her feet had touched bottom. Her knees were shaking, and she decided to let herself sink to them, and liking the heat of the rocks against her skin, she sprawled belly-down and lay panting on the beach. She was vaguely aware of lights in the cabin windows being switching on and off and panicked voices crying where is she? Millie found she was sobbing now, too tired to stop herself and too tired to care.
Her grandparents would find her. They would bring her in and dry her off and in their fluttering, creaking voices, ask her what she’d been thinking. Didn’t she know it was dangerous to go swimming by herself? Wasn’t she too old to believe in Lake Monsters now?