I remember the sweet days of childhood. Days that walked you home after dark and left you safely on your doorstep.
Long before we learned that growing up was hard, summer stretched out like a lazy dog under the porch. There was no sense of time and place, just the gentle nudge by the sun, enough to stir from sleep into the arms of another morning.
Clocks sat in corners, mute. They no longer ticked as June, July and August slid by in slow arcs of sunrise and sunset. The moon came up, and with it the wind from the hills behind the lake, hills that filled with fireflies and the sound of locusts. If one dared to listen, the echoes of Natives who long ago traveled to the healing waters whispered across the cove.
On a swing between two oaks, I sat with my brother and his friends under the stars. They shared stories of creatures from black lagoons, and of great gorillas and giant lizards who grabbed airplanes out of the sky and crushed buildings. I heard of banshees, ghosts, and things that flew through the night and gnawed on brains. Just a few yards away, the lake loomed dark and foreboding, waves slapping at the rocks like monstrous footfalls.
Light from the kitchen window spilled across the lawn to where I sat between the boys. The warmth from our bodies was not enough protection from things that lurked behind us or cried out in the woods.
I longed to run to the safety of the cottage and my mother, guaranteed deliverance from monsters. But it might as well had been a hundred miles away. Breathless, witless, I waited until we were all called in for the night. I walked close to my brother, then dashed the last steps to the porch, hoping a hand wouldn’t reach out and grasp my ankle, dragging me out of childhood and into a hell I had yet to dream about.
The next morning brought an innocence that wakened the birds and sets things right again. I heard the creaks and groans from downstairs amid muffled voices. The house was redolent with the aroma of coffee and bacon. No creatures lurked under the bed or tucked themselves into corners. The fright was over for another day. Only good would come as the sun splayed across the lake outside the window.
The days passed, each one tied to the next in what seemed like a never-ending chain of bliss, until a warning wind stole across the water. Frothy whitecaps crested and tumbled against the shore, polishing the end of summer as they lapped at the old wooden pier and nibbled at its paint.
September traveled down from the hills, windows closed to the night air that laced the sheets with dampness. The slant of light shifted between the trees and heralded a change.
We packed up our summer things. The pier was dismantled and huddled in tiers along the cottage siding. Adults were mindful of the clocks now, counting the moments in conversation, planning our departure as I lay beneath the knotty pine ceiling and listened to the dirge of words.
The saddest day arrived, despite pulling at the hours in hopes to slow it down. Already, acorns scattered on the ground. There was a smoky scent in the air. Birch leaves rustled on branches, then fell, first in lazy pirouettes, then faster, dappling the roof. We closed the screen door for the final time, the sound etched in memory forever.
From the rear window of the sedan, I no longer recognized our summer home. It had shape-shifted, crouching against the north wind, waiting for the first blows of winter.
We gave the lake back to the spirits of the ancient ones, and nodded as their ghosts passed us on the old dirt road.
“We will return,” I thought. I was a child. Little did I know that the next time I stood along the shore, I would be full grown. Grown enough to bring a broken heart to the healing waters. Grown enough to understand that, try as I might, I can no longer pretend that the darkest thing I will ever encounter are childish voices on a swing.
When I did return, the lake looked the same. I remembered each tree, each path through the woods, as familiar as my heartbeat. Tucked into memory, it is now a faded photograph that rests, frameless, in my soul.
Standing on the edge of autumn, I skipped a stone across the water and watched its journey. Then yearned to return it where it belonged. Instead I walked away, and carried the loss with me.
Award winning author Sharon Frame Gay has been published in such literary magazines and anthologies as Lowestoft Chronicle, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Thrice Fiction, Saddlebag Dispatches, and others. She was awarded the Will Rogers Medallion for excellence in Western writing as well as several Pushcart Prize nominations and other awards.