Chapter 1 – The Island
My paddle cut into the sparkling ripples of the lake, sucking them back into darker, almost oily-looking gashes of water. The canoe moved forward, silent except for the drip of water off the paddle. Dozens of tiny reflections of myself skimmed ahead on the surface, always jumping away from me, always staying the same distance out of reach. The sun beat down on my left side, casting a shadow to the right that rippled and undulated just below the surface, like something that didn’t want to come up and face the sun.
The peacefulness of the moment was interrupted by Jasper banging his paddle against the edge of the canoe. Four patient lessons from me, and he still couldn’t paddle properly: he kept switching sides, as if we were in a kayak, even though I’d explained to him that isn’t how it works with canoeing. You stick to one side and propel the boat with deep, straight strokes. I sat in the stern, doing all the work, while Jasper bounced his paddle along in shallow, splashing strokes, switching sides randomly and not helping at all. He looked even bulgier than usual in his lifejacket. He was a chubby thirteen-year-old ? well, let’s be honest, he was fat ? and the jacket wasn’t doing him any favors. My stepbrother was a year younger than me, but almost a foot shorter and a couple of feet wider.
Trying to ignore his ineffective splashing, I steered the canoe towards the island. The lake, surrounded by steep hills covered with thick evergreen, curved so that you couldn’t see either end from the shore. It was about a quarter-mile in length and maybe half as wide, and was dotted with tiny islands. Most had steep, rocky sides and thick clusters of trees that dared anyone to penetrate in. The island we were approaching was the one closest to our cabin, and it didn’t look like there was much to it: a pebbly area of beach where we could land the canoe; rising up from this, a slope covered in trees and scrub; and at the northern end, a small cliff. Still, it was the most exciting of the islands, because we could spy on it from our bedroom window. It reminded me of the smuggling stories I used to read as a kid, where night-time signals would flash from the mainland to guide smugglers in.
My dad had rented the cabin for a month. He’d had a ‘stressful’ year, what with Grandfather dying and all, and had explained that he needed a peaceful vacation. That translated to: no Disneyland or crowded beaches with shrieking toddlers, which was fine by me. I loved the woods, loved exploring. Me, Mom, and Dad used to camp in the woods in a huge tent, or even better, would stay in a tiny, remote cabin. We’d never been to this lake, though. Then, after the divorce, vacations got a bit mixed-up, and now that my dad was married to Jasper’s mom, they included my stepbrother.
I was okay with the whole stepbrother thing, although truthfully, I wouldn’t have minded some time alone now and then with my dad. Jasper was an okay kid, I guess, the only thing that stung was that he got to spend more time with my dad than I did (they lived together). But seeing as Dad was busy tying up my grandfather’s estate and stuff, which meant spending these first few days on his laptop or making trips into town, it might’ve been a bit lonely without Jasper.
“Almost there,” he said, trying to turn around but getting stuck by his bulky lifejacket.
“Okay, so when the canoe touches the shore, jump out and grab the front of it, then pull it up onto the beach. Got it?”
I gave one last strong stroke before resting the paddle across the sides and letting the canoe glide nose-first towards the beach. Jasper stood up (wrong) so that the canoe wobbled (wrong), and tried to hop onto the beach rather than step into the water. His back toe caught on the way over, plunging his front leg thigh-deep into the water. His hands went down to catch himself, and he splashed in face-first.
“Ow!” He came up, spluttering, water dripping off his face. “I got all wet.” He looked around. “Oh no, I lost my shoe!”
I picked up the paddle and gave another steering stroke, this time maneuvering the canoe parallel to the beach. When I heard the bottom scrape ground, I jumped out. Jasper was splashing around, looking for his rubber shoe, which was floating nearby but quickly bobbing away. I dragged the canoe up onto the beach.
“Got it?” I asked.
He retrieved his shoe and sloshed out of the lake, far wetter than he’d have been if he’d just stepped in to begin with. His surfer shorts, now soaking, clung to his bulging stomach and legs. “Wait,” he said, “I think I cut my toe on a rock.”
If ever there was a twenty-second episode that completely summed up Jasper, that was it.
He had to take off his lifejacket to get a look at his toe, so while he checked it out (not cut), I gratefully took off my own lifejacket and dropped it into the canoe. It was still early in the day, but the air was already hot. At some point, a swim was in order. I wanted to swim to the where the cliff rose up, to see if the water was deep enough for jumping.
But first, exploring the island. “Come on,” I said.
Jasper followed, shuffling his foot back into his shoe and then stopping again to empty it of pebbles. I looked around. Now that we were on the island, I estimated its size to equal about three backyards, although the dense foliage of the slope made it hard to tell. The beach was roughly thirty feet by twenty, covering the skinny end of the island, and the rest was all bush that I could barely see into ten feet. I headed towards it now, searching for some way to penetrate in. There were no obvious openings. Pressing my shoulders into a gap, I hoisted some thin tree branches out my way. Plants and twigs scraped my calves as I pushed in. I turned to say to Jasper, “Stay far enough back so those branches don’t snap back in your face—”
“Ow!” he squawked.
We pressed on.
The foliage was thick, and I was getting scratched all over. It would have been better if we’d kept the lifejackets on.
“This is hard,” Jasper whined. “Hey, maybe we should’ve brought the paddle to bushwhack.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, but I didn’t wanted to turn back, not before seeing if there was easy way to the top of the slope for cliff-jumping. Finally the trees thinned out and we made our way, legs so scratched that there was no point in trying to guard them any more, through low, scrubby undergrowth. As the sun beat down on us, sweat began to seep into my shirt. The smell of greenery filled the air. Cedar, ferns, salal bushes…
“Are those stinging nettles?” Jasper asked.
I stopped and looked around. “No.”
We were in a tiny clearing, but ahead of us, the trees seemed thicker and more tangled than ever. I walked on and tried to peer through the branches, but they were as dense as a jungle.
“Come on,” I said, “Let’s go back and see if we can walk around the shore.”
We made our way back down the slope, getting slapped by branches and scratched by razor-sharp leaves on the way, before emerging onto the beach. I went to check out the far side of the island. The beach came to an abrupt end where jagged rocks rose up from the water to the slope. “Nothing,” I called back, aware of a vague feeling of disappointment. The island had looked more exciting from shore ? the kind of place you’d send Morse code signals to if you were a kid. “Never mind,” I said, “let’s go for a swim.”
“Um… is it okay if we go back and swim near the cabin? I’m getting kinda hungry. Do you think Dad has lunch ready?”
I gritted my teeth against the word ‘Dad.’ I was the only person who should be allowed to call him that.
But Jasper’s whining was beginning to grate on my nerves, and it occurred to me that a swim by myself might be peaceful while he went off snacking. I nodded in reply, and we put our lifejackets back on.
Jasper climbed into the bow and sat there, ready to go, until I explained that I had to push the canoe out before he got in and weighed it down. We finally got it sorted out — I pushed the canoe into the water and held it still while Jasper climbed in, then I dragged the stern around, gave it a shove, and hopped in.
As I pushed away from the island, I turned around to take one last look, and almost dropped the paddle.
Sticking out from the thick foliage was a girl’s head and shoulders. She looked about eight or nine years old, with shoulder-length, brown hair pulled into braids at the sides of her head. Her eyes were dark and fierce, and they glared at me as she held her finger up to her lips. The message was clear: ‘Don’t tell.’
And then she disappeared.
My whole body jerked. I blinked a few times, letting the canoe drift around.
“Hey, Paul?” Jasper asked. “Uh, I think we’re drifting…”
My heart beating in staccato, I gave myself a shake and began to paddle again. Had I really just seen that?
I looked back one more time. There was nothing there. But then, after a second or two, the face poked out once more, eyes still intense and glaring. This time, she pointed: you.
She disappeared again.
Dumbly, I turned and paddled away as if I’d been ordered to leave and was obeying like a zombie. Well, a zombie with its heart going like a jackhammer. As I slid the paddle through the slippery water, the reason I gave myself for not going back to investigate was that then I’d have to explain it to Jasper, whereas the girl’s message had been clear: don’t tell.
But really, I think the reason I paddled away so quickly was that I was completely spooked. The girl was creepy-looking, almost surreal. What had I just seen?