McKenna Dunn always made the trip to Mosquito Lake after sunset when the moon was full, the stars bright in the sky. She liked the night because it made her feel closer to Dane. The first time she met Dane was at night. When he held her and told her he loved her, it was at night. It was at night when she gave herself to him. It was at night when he drowned.
To reach the lake, she took the back roads, the ones with potholes full of mud, grass, and gravel. In the winter, the lake’s front entrance was always chained off after dark. The back roads were not, and the locals knew their way around them. It was one of these roads she always took to get to the lake.
The evening had grown cool as she stepped from her car, and she shivered, not knowing if the fog bothered her or the chill in the air. Or perhaps it was the darkness that surrounded her.
Or maybe it was the thought of what she was about to do.
The lake was quiet, a dense mist slowly ebbing across the water. She was sure the water was frigid, and no one would be coming to swim. Winter was just around the corner. The leaves had already turned their brilliant shades of red, gold, and brown and were slowly dying and falling to the ground. The snow would come next. The lake would freeze over. The earth would become hard with ice and snow.
McKenna closed the car door quietly. She didn’t know why. There was no one around to hear it, but the thought of any loud noise in the stillness of the night made her jumpy.
Of all the times she returned to the lake, this time was extra special. Today was McKenna’s birthday. And not just any birthday. Today she turned twenty-one. Her expectations were high. She stood still, thinking she might catch the sound of Dane’s voice on the wind.
She missed him. She needed to feel his presence, needed to be where all the memories of him were. At times, McKenna felt like she was dying inside and sometimes wished she would.
“Dane,” she whispered. “Where are you, Dane?”
There were times when the memories came, and they were too vibrant. Too full of sounds and colors. McKenna lifted a hand to her head to stop them. For a moment, she grew dizzy and leaned against the car for support.
Her legs weakened, and her feet slid slowly out from under her. She dropped to the ground, not caring if her jeans got muddy or stained. She was here to do something she never thought she would do again. She never thought she could find the courage.
But her need for Dane was too strong, and finally, McKenna stood, brushed off her jeans, and walked toward the water.
It happened the summer McKenna Dunn turned seventeen. In celebration of her birthday, her family opted for a weekend on the lake. Many of her relatives came, some she was sure she had yet to meet. Several brought campers, but most opted for tents. Canoes with fishing poles dropped in the water were visible farther up the lake. The ones that were swimming were careful to stay away from the lines. A group of teenagers set up a volleyball net on the beach and were warming up for a game. McKenna gazed longingly at the volleyball game as the kids batted the ball back and forth. She loved the game and was good at it. She wanted to be in the midst of all that fun. It wasn’t fair.
“McKenna.” Her mother interrupted her thoughts.
She dragged her eyes from the game. “Yes, Mother?”
“McKenna, you’re daydreaming again. I need your help, please.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. What do you need help with?”
“Please, McKenna,” her mother sighed. “I need help with everything. Get your head out of the clouds. After all, it is your birthday and your party.”
“Yes, it is my birthday,” she grumbled. “and my party.”
The sarcasm flew over her mother’s head.
McKenna rolled her eyes and turned to the coolers that lined the picnic tables. She flipped the latches and threw open the lids, anger creeping into her movements. It wasn’t fair. It was her birthday, her party, but she was the only one not having any fun.
She grabbed at the mustard and ketchup bottles, yanked them out of their icy bed, and slammed them onto the table. Her mother turned and glared at her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
Her mother turned back to the grill.
She wasn’t a bit sorry and almost repeated the action when her eyes shifted once again to the volleyball game. She didn’t know who was winning, and she didn’t care. She only wanted to play.
She squinted against the sunlight and peered past the trees when a movement beyond the game caught her attention. Someone was standing deep in the shadows beyond the clearing. When a strong breeze swayed the tree branches, it broke up the sunlight filtering through, making the silhouette move.
He stepped from the shadows and lifted a hand in a wave. McKenna spun around to see if anyone was behind her. There wasn’t. She turned back, one hand shading her eyes from the bright sun.
“McKenna, what are you doing?”
She dropped her hand to her side. “Did you see him?”
“See who?” Her mother pushed a strand of hair off her forehead with the back of one hand.
“I thought someone was waving at me from the clearing.”
Her mother lifted her head from the grill, her eyes combing the woods. “Are you sure?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“I don’t know. I don’t see anyone.”
McKenna shrugged it off.
“If there was someone there, they’re gone now. Help me with these burgers.”
McKenna rolled ground beef between her hands, flattening the balls into patties for her mother to place on the hot grill. She moved automatically, filling plates with potato salad, adding the burgers and hot dogs to their buns, and filling Styrofoam cups with soda or punch. By the time she could sit down and eat something herself, she had lost her appetite and was too tired to eat.
She got up from the picnic table and tossed her full plate into the trash barrel. She was hot and decided to take a stroll to the beach. Maybe she would walk the water, get her feet wet.
The water was inviting, so she decided to sit down on the sand. She lifted her hair. The breeze felt good on the back of her neck.
A shadow fell across her, and she raised her head to see her father looking down at her.
“Company?” he asked.
“Sure,” she smiled.
He grunted as he plopped down on the sand beside her. “Having a good time, Kenna?”
“Liar,” he chuckled.
“I know you, and I know your mother. You’ve been stuck helping her ever since we got here.”
She shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“Maybe you can avoid her for the rest of the weekend.”
She laughed. “That will go over well.”
“Well, you could try. I certainly wouldn’t blame you.”
“I could try,” McKenna sighed and turned her sights back to the water.
“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” her dad said.
“It is,” McKenna agreed. “I love it here.”
“I just wish you could go in the water. I feel like you would enjoy yourself more.”
“Sometimes, I wish I could, too, Dad. But I’m okay with just sitting here. The water’s very soothing.”
She wrapped her arms around her knees and rested her chin on them. “I wish Grandma and Grandpa would come with us sometime. I know they’d enjoy the sunshine and fresh air, but they never leave the house. I don’t know how they can stand it.”
Her father didn’t answer.
McKenna studied him from the corner of her eye. His brow was knitted with concern.
“You okay, Dad?” she asked.
He cleared his throat. “I’m fine, Kenna. I just feel you need to spend more time with your friends.”
“My friends are fine. I just wish Grandma and Grandpa…”
“I heard you,” he said sharply, then softened his tone. “Don’t worry about them, Kenna. You just relax and have a good time.”
“But, Dad, I didn’t mean…”
He reached out and patted her knee. “It’s fine, Kenna.” He paused for a moment, then he said, “You know, we’ve been coming here since you were three years old. Your mom and I have been coming here longer than that.” There was a sadness in his voice that she had never heard before.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing, Kenna. Just memories.”
“Good or bad?”
He glanced at her. “Both.”
“Want to talk about it?” It was a question they had asked each other many times over the years.
“Maybe someday,” he said.
He nodded. “Sure.”
He wiggled his little finger at her. “Pinky swear.”
“Oh, Dad,” she laughed. “Really?”
“Really,” he said earnestly. “I will never talk about our memories without your mother.”
McKenna wrapped her little finger around his. “Pinky swear,” she agreed. “I guess I just have to be patient.”
He let go of her finger and smiled. “Patience is a virtue.”
“Oh, brother.” She rolled her eyes. Thoughts of her mother came to mind. “Has she always like this?”
Connor threw back his head and laughed. “That’s an understatement.” he laughed. “I know your mother can be vicious at times.”
“Was she always like that, or is it because of me?”
“Because of you?”
McKenna looked down at her hands. “Yeah, has she been this way since I was born?”
“Listen to me,” Connor scooted around to face her and clasped her hands in his. “Your mother was the most caring, loving person I ever met. When she brought you home from the hospital, she was even more so.”
McKenna could hardly believe her mother being a loving and caring person. Her mother was short-tempered and cruel, especially to McKenna.
“What changed, Dad? What made her so unhappy? What made her hate me so much?”
“Oh, honey, she doesn’t hate you. She could never hate you. But a long time ago, something happened that made her very over-protective of you.”
“I can’t think of anything that would change a person so much.”
“It is hard to imagine, Kenna, but bad things do happen to good people.
“What happened? Can you tell me?”
“That’s where the ‘someday’ comes in. All I can tell you right now is there was an incident that happened. Your mother blames me, as she should. I think she lives in a constant state of fear and stress these days.”
“Is that why the two of you argue a lot?”
He glanced at her. His green eyes were moist. He looked away quickly and cleared his throat. “It’s okay, Kenna. I’m good with it.”
“But it’s my fault that you argue. What did I do to cause all of this?”
“It’s nothing you did, sweetheart. It’s all on me. It was completely my fault.” He gripped her hands a little tighter. “Kenna, there are things you don’t know about. Your mother thinks we should keep it to ourselves, but I think...”
Conner jumped to his feet.
McKenna stood and turned around. In the shadows of the evening, she saw her mother hurrying toward them, her chestnut hair blowing behind her, her eyes blazing with fury.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she cried as she reached them.
“I swear to God, Connor, you better stop right now!”
“But, Sarah, it’s time,” he replied.
“Stop!” she warned him once more.
“Mom!” McKenna cried. “What’s wrong, Mom!”
“You get back to camp,” Sarah turned on her. “It’s too late to be out here!”
McKenna stared at her.
“I said, go! Now!”
“I want to know what’s wrong, Mom. What is it that Dad can’t tell me?”
“It’s none of your business, is what it is.” Her mother was calming down, her breathing came easier. “Now get back to camp. You have company waiting for you.
Car lights flashed, a horn blared, and she could hear her friends singing the happy birthday song as McKenna hastened back to the campsite. She recognized the car immediately.
“Happy Birthday, Kenny!” Her best friend, Kelly Noble, was the first one out of the car. She rushed toward McKenna. McKenna held out her arms to catch her. Laughing uncontrollably, they regained their balance.
“You guys! How did you know?” McKenna was still breathless from her run to the campsite, thoughts of her mother and father no longer important at the sight of her three friends.
“We got invited,” Raven said.
“Raven---“Kelly started to say but was interrupted.
“We couldn’t let our best girl celebrate her birthday with just a bunch of Old Fogeys, could we?” Layla said.
“Layla...for God’s sake, be quiet.” Kelly shushed them.
“Invited?” McKenna asked. “By whom?”
“Sorry,” Kelly opened the trunk of the car. “We’ve been sworn to secrecy. And you won’t drag it out of us, Kenny, so don’t even try.”
“Oh, I don’t care who invited you. You’re here. You have no idea how happy I am! This is the best birthday present ever.”
“Oh, hell, no,” Raven squeezed the breath out of McKenna, then released her, “we brought real gifts!”
“You didn’t have to…”
“Don’t worry about what we didn’t have to do,” Kelly interrupted. “and don’t you dare take the fun out of this for us!”
“Okay, I won’t,” she laughed.
“Good, then help us unpack the car. We need to set up our camp before it gets too late. We’ve already lost the light thanks to our driver.”
Raven, the driver, snorted at this remark.
“You’re staying then?” McKenna asked.
Raven grunted as she pulled a folded-up tent from the trunk of the car. “All weekend.”
“That’s so great!” McKenna squealed. “Let’s get you ladies set up!”
They set their tents up in a circle and lit a fire in the middle. They were all experienced campers and hikers. Each girl brought a cooler filled with their favorite things to eat. Finally settled, they roasted marshmallows over the campfire and shared ghost stories.
“Have you been to the old cemetery, Kenny?” Raven asked.
“What cemetery?” McKenna shivered, her green eyes glancing around the darkness, her red hair glowing scarlet from the campfire. “You mean there’s a cemetery close by?”
“Oh my God, you didn’t know there’s a cemetery? And how long have you been coming here?” Layla asked, then turning to Kelly, she said, “Okay, we have to take her.”
“Yes!” Kelly said excitedly. “We’ll go tomorrow. You’re going to love it, Kenny. There’s quite a story about it.”
“Really?” McKenna asked. “What’s the story?”
“Oh, no. No way,” Raven laughed. “That’s a story for tomorrow. In the meantime,” she yawned widely, “I’m beat. It’s time to hit the sack if we want to go exploring tomorrow.”
McKenna wasn’t tired, and now she was curious. Her mind was still preoccupied with her parents’ argument, her friends’ surprise visit, and now the anticipation of visiting a mysterious cemetery that she knew nothing about.
Grudgingly, McKenna trudged back to her campsite, crawled inside her tent, and wriggled into her sleeping bag. She doused her lantern, laid back, and tried to turn her mind off. It was almost impossible, and she knew sleep would not come any time soon.
She gave up and left her tent and plopped down in a lawn chair beside the dying fire of her camp. Her mind started to settle down now that she was outside in the fresh air, but it cleared the way for other things to invade her consciousness. Things her dad said to her but never got to finish. Her mother running toward them, shouting for her dad to stop. What was so horrible that her mother wouldn’t let her father tell her? And what did it have to do with her?
She needed to be well-rested for the long day ahead and hoped her stint outside would help her sleep. She stood, stretched, and brushed the sand from her khaki shorts that seemed to be everywhere when they camped.
The sharp cry of an owl overhead made her jump. She turned, her eyes roaming the woods beyond the campsite. “Don’t be silly,” she chastised herself: too many ghost stories and the talk of the cemetery.
She spied him standing at the edge of the clearing where he had been earlier in the day. He had been observing her from the shadows of the trees. Once again, he lifted a hand and waved.
What? She thought. Who is that? She squinted, unable to see him well enough in the darkness. Could he be one of her many relatives? But then he would be staying inside the camp.
He beckoned her closer.
McKenna stared wide-eyed at him. This stranger wanted her to go into the woods with him. Was he crazy? She shook her head, no.
He repeated the motion for her to join him. She shook her head once more and backed away slowly until she was at the entrance to her tent. She trembled, and her eyes stared into the dark. She couldn’t tell if he was still there, and that made her anxious. She climbed inside the tent and closed the zipper, scooting on her butt away from the opening. She waited, her ears straining to hear footsteps. The night stayed quiet. She crept to the entrance and, with shaking hands, unzipped the tent. He was no longer visible.
The robins and warblers and sparrows woke her the following day. Somewhere in the distance, a woodpecker tapped loudly on a tree, the sound echoing throughout the forest.
McKenna rolled over in her sleeping bag and opened her eyes. She didn’t sleep well and should be extremely tired, but she wasn’t. She felt wide awake, excited, and looked forward to the day. Her friends were here to make things a whole lot better with the promise of a thrilling excursion.
The smell of fresh coffee lured her from her tent. Her mother was at the setup they used as a kitchen, pouring coffee into Styrofoam cups for everyone. Afraid of being yelled at again, she tentatively approached, but her mother surprised her, seemingly no longer upset. “Good morning, McKenna,” she said pleasantly. “Want coffee?”
“Yes, please.” She studied her mother’s face and reached for the cup. There was nothing there to indicate the tension of the night before.
“I see your friends have arrived.”
McKenna’s face broke into a grin. “Yea, I was shocked. How did they know we planned this?”
“Because I invited them.” Her mother smiled at her.
“You invited them?”
“Of course.” Her mother picked up her cup, took a small sip, and then blew into the coffee to cool it off.
“Thank you, Mom,” McKenna felt herself soften toward her mother. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome. I thought you might enjoy yourself more if you didn’t have to hang out with a bunch of Old Fogeys.”
McKenna’s face flamed a bright red. “You heard.”
“How could I not?” Her mother’s mouth twisted into a lopsided grin. “Your friends are not known for their indiscretion.”
“She didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I know she didn’t. I thought it rather funny.”
McKenna laughed at this.
“Speak of the devil,” her mother said.
“Morning,” Kelly walked toward them, rubbing her eyes. “Oh, yes! Coffee!”
Sarah handed her one of the Styrofoam cups. “So what do you girls have planned for today?”
Raven was next to appear, ready for coffee. “We thought about taking Kenny on a little picnic to a special place.”
“Really?” Mrs. Dunn questioned.
“Yes,” Raven’s head bobbed excitedly. “She’s never been to the old cemetery on the other side of the lake. I can’t believe she didn’t know about it. Do you know about it, Mrs. Dunn?”
Sarah lowered her eyes and took a sip of her coffee. “Yes, I know of it, but we don’t go to cemeteries in this family.”
Why not?” Kelly asked.
“We only visit the living. Graveyards are for the dead. And I wish you girls wouldn’t take McKenna there.”
“But, Mrs. Dunn,” Kelly said, “it will be okay. We would be going during the day. And we were going to pack a cooler. We were going to have McKenna open her gifts there.”
“Never mind,” McKenna interrupted. “We don’t need to go there. We can go on a hike and take our picnic with us.”
The girls groaned but agreed.
McKenna finished her coffee and threw the cup in the trash barrel. “Come on,” she motioned to the girls. “Let’s go.”
As they walked toward their tents, Raven spoke up. “Man, I can’t believe we’re not going to the cemetery.”
“Who says we’re not?” McKenna grinned.
“You’re not serious.” Kelly’s eyes widened.
“I am very serious.”
“You’re going to defy your mother?” Raven asked.
“You bet we are. I’m getting tired of all the secrets this family keeps. There’s something about that cemetery that I need to see. Come hell or high water.”
Mrs. Dunn was adamant about McKenna not going to the cemetery so the girls could not take the car. The lie they spun forced them to hike. They didn’t mind. It would only add to the adventure.
They reached the cemetery before noon. It was substantial in size, the iron fence that surrounded it rusting with age. The gate at the entrance hung open on hinges that had long ago oxidized and were now an orange color. Many of the smaller headstones had fallen over and lay half-buried in the grass and mud.
They stopped at the entrance, and Kelly pointed to the weather-beaten sign. The letters read on the old sign read H ll s e C m t ry.
“This is it?” McKenna exclaimed, disappointment settling over her like a dark shroud. “It’s just an old graveyard. There are a million of these old graveyards in this state.”
“Oh, McKenna,” Kelly laughed. “Don’t exaggerate. There’s somewhere else I want to go before we go first.”
She followed Kelly past the gates of the cemetery. They walked down the road before the road dead-ended into the other side of the lake.
“I’ve never been to this area before.” McKenna squinted her eyes as the sun bounced off the water. “It’s beautiful. Why would they not finish the road? Someone could drive right into the water if they weren’t paying attention.”
“The road is finished. It used to go all the way across until the flood,” Kelly said, her eyes studying McKenna. “And people have driven into the lake, either drunk or on drugs. There’ve been quite a few drownings, too. Sometimes, it gets pitch black out here. That’s one of the reasons it’s closed off now.”
McKenna shivered. Drowning, what a horrible way to die. She shivered again.
“People used to swim and dock their boats here. There were houses here, too. When the flood happened, it covered everything. There’s nothing but old houses and tree stumps under the water. I guess there’s an actual one-room schoolhouse under the water.
“You can’t swim here. The boats can’t get close to this dock anymore, either, without tearing up their bottoms. Now they dock over by the dam. This area got closed off when they moved the cemetery.”
“They moved the cemetery?” McKenna echoed, her eyes growing wide.
“They had to,” Kelly answered. “It flooded. I guess it was pretty bad. They had to move over four hundred graves. I heard bodies were floating up to the top of the water.”
“Oh,” she whispered. “How horrible.”
“Yea, but that was a long time ago,” Kelly said. “I think it was back in the ’40s. The Army Corps of Engineers did it. They had to move the graves farther up the hill.” She cocked her head toward the road. “That’s where the cemetery is now.”
“How do you know so much about it?” McKenna asked.
Kelly shrugged. “My dad’s a local history buff. He knows all about the lake. Did you know it was named Mosquito Lake because at one time it was just a creek, and there were so many mosquitos, they would eat you alive, given a chance.” She laughed then pulled McKenna by her arm. “That’s enough gruesomeness for one day. Come on, let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
Raven wanted to have their picnic in the cemetery, against McKenna’s wishes, so they found a spot devoid of graves under a large Elm.
McKenna had no appetite after hearing about the flood and the bodies. She still felt horrified and sick to her stomach. She didn’t touch her lunch, sitting quietly while her friends chattered about their hair, makeup, and boys. Once they finished, her friends wanted to play a game they had created when they were younger. They used to call it The Headstone Game. They looked for their last names on old headstones in the old cemeteries that surrounded their town. Now they just called it Searching for Names. It was a game McKenna always hated, but she played along to satisfy her friends.
“I found a Wilson!” Layla Wilson screamed from across the cemetery. “1941!”
“Ha, I found a... hey, come here, guys,” Layla shouted. “Check this name out!”
McKenna didn’t want to see it. She was starting to hate this cemetery.
“Damn,” Raven swore, staring down at the headstone. “I’ll just bet she got teased a lot in school.”
“How do you know it’s a girl?” Layla punched her softly in the shoulder. “Jan could be a guy, you know.”
“No way. Jan is a female name. It’s short for Janet. And don’t punch me again, Layla,” Raven rubbed her shoulder. “That hurt.”
“That could be her husband next to her. I knew a Jan once that was a guy,” Layla argued. “And I didn’t punch you that hard.”
“It’s not a husband. Look at the dates of death. Jan was in his 60’s. The other person was only 20 years old. And you did punch me THAT hard.” Raven punched Layla in the shoulder to pay her back.
“What’s wrong, Kenny?” Kelly moved closer to McKenna. “You’re quiet.”
McKenna refused to look at the headstones. The idea of them being underwater tormented her. “Do you think they moved all of the bodies?” She suddenly had a horrible feeling, close to panic. “Oh, God, Kel, you don’t think some of them are still at the bottom of the lake, do you? What if they missed some or forgot some? Oh, those poor people!”
“Oh my God, Kenny, please stop!” Layla cried. “You’re going to ruin this wonderful day!”
“Shut up, Layla,” Kelly said through clenched teeth. Then to McKenna, she said, “I’m pretty sure they moved all the bodies. Isn’t there a law about that?”
“But four hundred bodies. How could they possibly?”
“I don’t know. They probably used cranes or backhoes or whatever those machines are called. Kenny, you have to stop thinking this way.”
“I can’t help it. I just feel so --”
Now even Kelly sighed helplessly. “I had no idea this would upset you. I wouldn’t have brought you here otherwise. I thought it would be fun.”
“It’s been fun, kind of,” McKenna said without much conviction.
“Sure,” Kelly said dryly. “I can tell. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go swimming.”
Grudgingly, the other girls followed them.
By the time they made it back to camp, it was past five o’clock, and Mrs. Dunn had everything ready for the evening meal.
“You girls have to eat,” she insisted when Kelly told her they were going for a swim. “Then you have to wait an hour to digest. It might be too dark by then. I don’t think swimming is such a good idea right now.”
“Ah, Mrs. Dunn, you’re killing me,” Raven said. “I’m all hot and sweaty from the hike. I need to get into some nice cool water.”
“The showers in the clubhouse have very cool water,” Mrs. Dunn replied, then turned to help serve the others.
“Damn,” Raven groaned. “I wanted to swim.”
“We can swim first thing tomorrow,” McKenna promised. “We’ll have all day. I don’t think there’s anywhere else to go, is there?”
“Nope,” Kelly replied. “We’re staying right here. And Kenny’s right. We’ll have all day. Right now, I’m famished. And I’m ready to drop. If I tried to swim right now, I’d probably drown.”
McKenna stared at her. “What about the…” she started to say before Layla jumped in.
“Oh, no,” Layla grimaced. “There she goes again.”
“Stop it, Kenny,” Kelly whispered. “You can’t let your mother know we went to the cemetery.”
“I’m sorry, guys. I just don’t know what’s wrong with me. Let’s go eat. Then you guys can scare me to death with more of your morbid tales. I’m sure that will cheer me up.”
As tired as she was, McKenna couldn’t sleep. She lay in her sleeping bag, listening to the crickets singing and the same old tired owl hooting somewhere in the trees. Her legs kept getting tangled up in her sleeping bag. It felt suffocating in the tent, so she unzipped it and opened the flaps. The night was chilly, and she breathed it in. It was better but still not enough.
Crawling from her tent, she wandered over to the dying fire and stared at the red embers that fought to stay alight in the fire pit. She felt ridiculous. Why would a cemetery being moved bother her so much? But four hundred bodies. And the old cemetery being flooded and underwater, how could they find all of the graves to move to the new graveyard?
McKenna left the fire and shuffled toward the lake. Slipping off her flip-flops and staying close to the edge of the water, she let the small waves wash over her toes. It felt good on her hot feet. She breathed deeply, the scent of wildflowers filling her nose.
On the lake, the geese and tundra swans floated silently, their beaks tucked under their wings while they slept soundly. Somewhere deep in the forest, white-tailed deer were sleeping. Even the campgrounds were quiet; everyone bedded down for the night.
So why did she hear rustling in the woods?
Turning suddenly, she almost slipped and fell into the shallow water but caught her balance at the last moment.
“You should be more careful. The sand is very slippery under there.”
“What?” The color drained from her face as she whirled around toward the voice. Her breath quickened. She had never heard him approach.
“I said...” He threaded a hand through his blonde hair.
“I know what you said.” Her voice trembled. She raised her chin defensively. “I just didn’t hear you. What are you doing sneaking around here in the middle of the night?”
“Oh, sorry.” He lifted his shoulders in a half shrug. “Not sneaking. Just walking. The night is my favorite time for some reason.”
“What are you, a vampire or something?” she snorted.
He laughed at this. “Not that I know of.”
“Are you stalking me?”
“Nope. Not stalking. Just observing.”
She drew in a sharp breath. “Observing what?”
He slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans and lowered his head. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“I need to get back to my camp,” McKenna said, suddenly afraid. She turned swiftly and lost her balance again. This time he caught her by the arms. For a long moment, he held her, then she stepped back, and he dropped his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized.
She pressed a shaking hand to her throat and turned, stumbling up the bank to her camp.
Raven Donavan liked to paint her fingernails in different colors. She streaked her long dark hair with multiple shades of red, gold, and blue. Being different was her claim to fame, and she loved being the center of attention.
“Do you know what we forgot to do?” she asked, smacking her forehead.
“Now what,” Kelly groaned.
“There’s something we forgot to do with all the damn drama.”
“Watch your language, Raven,” Kelly warned. “Mrs. Dunn might hear you.”
Raven took another bite of her breakfast before answering. “We forgot the damn gifts!” she said around a mouthful of egg. “How could we forget the damn gifts?”
“Gross,” Layla cried. “Chew your food and swallow before you talk. That’s disgusting.”
Raven swallowed hard, then took a bite of bacon. Chewing slowly, she grinned at Layla. Then she opened her mouth to expose the contents.
Layla got up quickly from the picnic table. “Ugh, I think I’m gonna throw up.” She stomped away, almost running into McKenna. “Sorry, Kenny,” Layla mumbled as she passed her by.
McKenna had just left her tent, her eyes still half-closed, when Layla almost plowed into her. She felt groggy. Her movements were slow. Even though it was late when she went back to the campsite, she had a hard time falling asleep. She couldn’t stop thinking about the guy from the beach and the strange way he just seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“No breakfast?” Kelly asked.
“Not hungry,” she answered. “But I could use some coffee, I guess.”
“I’ll get it for you,” Raven said.
After she had left the table, McKenna turned to Kelly. “I had the strangest thing happen to me last night.”
“Really? Do tell, girlfriend.”
“Don’t tell the others.”
“I don’t know. Just please don’t. Pinky swear.”
Kelly wrapped her pinky finger around McKenna’s and swore herself to secrecy.
“I met someone.”
Kelly’s eyes grew wide. “What? How did that happen? We all went to bed.”
McKenna shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep so I went to the beach. I met him there.”
“What’s his name?” Kelly asked, her eyes lit up. “Is he camping here? Does he live close by?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know.”
“How could you not know?” Kelly demanded. “I’d be asking him a million questions!”
McKenna laughed. “I know you would. But I didn’t meet him-meet him.”
“What does that mean?” Kelly leaned her elbows on the picnic table and rested her chin in her hands.
McKenna toyed with a lock of her red hair. “It means what it means. He appeared out of nowhere and scared me half to death.”
“Is he cute?” Kelly moved closer to McKenna and lowered her voice.
McKenna grinned. “Very.”
“There’s not much else to tell. But we’ll talk later.” McKenna nodded her head toward a returning Raven.
“Do you realize that we forgot the damn gifts, McKenna?” Raven approached the table.
“I give up,” Kelly moaned. “Yes, we forgot the damn gifts. McKenna, did you know we forgot the damn gifts? Raven, you need to get Layla back here so Kenny can open her damn gifts.”
McKenna glanced from Kelly to Raven. “What’s that all about?”
“It’s not important,” Kelly sighed. “I’ll get the gifts. Raven, you get Layla back here. And don’t show her any more food.” She saw McKenna looking at her strangely. “It’s nothing,” she said.
Once they had all finally gathered around McKenna at the picnic table, Kelly handed a large gaily wrapped package to McKenna.
“Wow, nice and big,” McKenna shook the package.
“Why do you have to do that?” Kelly protested. “You’re gonna end up breaking something.”
“Oh, sorry,” McKenna apologized. “Bad habit.” She tore open the wrapping paper and eyed the gift inside. “A makeup kit?”
“Yep,” Kelly answered. “You never wear any.”
“Me next!” Raven shouted, handing her present to McKenna.
She almost shook the box, then glanced at Kelly and smiled. “Oops.”
“Don’t you dare,” Kelly warned.
McKenna laughed and tore open the box. It was a curling iron. “What are you ladies trying to tell me, hmm?”
“Here,” Layla set her present in front of McKenna.
“No shaking,” she whispered as she opened it. “What the hell?” It looked like a pair of underwear.
“You’ll understand better once you open this.” Layla set another box in front of her.
“A bra and underwear?” she asked, puzzled.
“It’s a bikini, dummy. Wear it with pride.”
“I don’t wear bikinis,” McKenna snorted. “I don’t even swim.”
“You will. You camp here every weekend in the summer with your folks. It’s time you start enjoying it.”
“Well, thank you so much for the presents. I appreciate them. I don’t know how to wear makeup, but I’ll try. And I’m pretty sure I can use a curling iron.”
“You have us to help you.” Raven grinned. “We’re gonna do you up good.”
“Oh, brother,” McKenna groaned.
“Shall we get started?” Kelly asked.
“Sure, now,” Kelly answered. “No time like the present, they say, whoever they are.”
McKenna rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I thought you guys wanted to spend the day swimming.”
“Only if you wear the bikini,” Raven beamed. “We’ll do makeup and hair later.”
“I can’t win here,” she said, grabbing the bikini. She started to rise from the table when her eyes glanced up and saw him. He was standing at the edge of the trees, and he waved when he saw her looking at him.
“There he is again,” she whispered to herself.
“There who is again?” Raven asked.
“I have to go. I’ll be right back, I promise. Then we’ll go swim.”
She left them and strolled toward the clearing in the woods.
“What’s she talking about, Kelly?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t see anybody. Do you?”
Kelly strained her eyes in the sunlight. The trees were full of shadows that moved with the breeze, playing tricks on the eyes. She was pretty sure that someone was there. She just couldn’t see him.
He stood over six feet. A gust of wind whipped him, whisking the blond hair around his face, and he used one hand to brush away. He shaded his eyes against the brightness of the sun, and when McKenna approached, she noticed how blue they were. He smiled at her, his lips the shape of Cupids Bow.
“Hi,” he offered an outstretched hand. “I’m Dane.”
“You said you didn’t know my name. I’m Dane.” He reached out and touched her hair. “You are so beautiful.”
She pushed his hand away. “Stop it!”
“You’re very special. You must know that.”
“I know you’re a nutcase,” she said crossly.
He laughed good-naturedly. “I’m not a nutcase. What can I do to convince you I’m not?”
“Well, for starters, you can go away and leave me alone.”
He studied her quietly until she grew uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
“What are you doing?” she finally asked.
“Not until you tell me your name.”
“What are you talking about?
“You told me to go away. I’ll go away after you tell me your name.”
“No.” She shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans. “You don’t need to know my name.”
“Please tell me. I promise I won’t bother you anymore if you tell me.”
At first, she hesitated, then she gave in. “My name’s McKenna, okay?” She pressed her lips tightly together as if she were sorry she told him. “Now, will you go away?”
“McKenna. What a beautiful name.” He slowly pronounced her name, letting it drift off his tongue, his eyes half-closed.
“My friends call me Kenny.”
“Kenny?” He shook his head. “Why would they do that? I would never insult you like that.”
“Insult me?” she echoed.
“Your name is so beautiful, so unusual. You should never shorten it to a boy’s name. A name describes a person, gives that person a personality, a purpose in life. If you don’t mind, I will always call you McKenna.”
“Well,” he smiled. “now that we know each other, would you walk with me for a while?”
“No, I can’t,” she insisted even though she felt her reserve slipping away. It was those eyes and the way they looked at her. “I just deserted my friends for you.”
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
“I have to get back. Everyone is waiting for me. Now that you know my name, you can go back to wherever you came from.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, now what?”
“Do we know each other?”
“No, I think I would remember you.”
“I hope that’s a good thing.” He smiled, showing white teeth.
“Not necessarily,” she replied. She wanted to be mean, but it wasn’t in her DNA.
“But I feel like I already know you.”
“Does that line still work? It’s so old.”
“It is?” he asked. “But it’s not a line. It’s the truth.”
“And why should I believe that?” Why was she still talking to him?
“Well,” Dane laughed. “I try not to lie. Lies always seem to come back and haunt you.”
“Look,” McKenna blew out her cheeks, finally tired of the conversation. He had promised to go away, yet he was still here, still talking to her. “I don’t know you. I’ve already asked you to leave me alone. I don’t want to have to tell my family that some boy is bothering me. It wouldn’t be good for you. Now, if you will just leave me alone so that I can be with my friends, that will make me very happy.”
Dane cocked his head, his blue eyes studying her. “Is that what you want, McKenna?”
She nodded. “That’s what I want.”
He looked away for a moment. Then he looked back at her and nodded his head. “If that’s what you want.”
“Kenna, where’ve you been, honey?” He put an arm over her shoulder, leading her away from camp and the glaring eyes of her mother.
“I just went for a walk, Dad,” she said, so relieved that her father had not seen her with Dane.
“You left your friends. Is there anything you want to tell me? You can, you know.”
“I know I can, Dad,” she sighed. “But I don’t think I’m ready to share this just yet.”
“Not sure you do.”
“You might be surprised, Kenna.” Her father chuckled under his breath. “I’m not that old.”
McKenna laughed. “I’m not saying you are.”
“Will you share with me when you feel you can?” he asked gently.
“Yes, I will,” she promised.
“Pinky swear?” He lifted his hand to her, his pinky finger extended.
“Pinky swear.” She wrapped her pinky finger around his.
“I love you, Kenna,” he said sadly.
“I love you too, Dad. Don’t look so sad.”
“I can’t help it, kiddo. My baby is growing up. Now, I guess I’ll deal with your mother. You can join your friends.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she smiled. “Really.”
He gave her a half-hearted smile and turned back toward her mother. McKenna could see the anger on her mother’s face, even from a distance, and decided to take her father’s advice and find her friends.
They were on the beach, already soaking wet from swimming.
“Are you in much trouble?” Kelly asked.
“Not with my Dad. But with my mother,” she shrugged. “who knows. I haven’t felt her wrath yet.”
“We tried to find you before they realized you were gone,” Kelly said. “But we didn’t know where you went. You left so suddenly.”
“It’s okay,” she assured her friend. “I don’t want you guys on the bad side of my mother.”
“So, where did you go?” Layla’s voice was just a bit too loud, and McKenna grimaced.
“Did you tell them?” she asked Kelly.
Kelly shook her head. “Not my place.”
“Well, are you going to tell us?” Raven questioned, flipping her long coal-black hair from her shoulders. “Or do we have to drag it out of you?”
“It’s no big deal,” McKenna rubbed her forehead vigorously. Her head ached, and her eyes were dry. She felt exhausted. “I met someone last night on the beach.”
“You did?” Layla shrieked. “Tell us everything!” Her large green eyes were flashing with excitement.
“Pipe down,” Kelly whispered harshly. “You want the entire camp to know?”
Layla covered her mouth with both hands, her face flaming red.
“Yes, I met a guy,” McKenna confirmed. “I couldn’t sleep, so I walked to the beach.” She turned to Kelly. “His name is Dane.”
“Is he cute?” Layla asked in a loud whisper.
McKenna nodded despite her headache. “More than,” she answered. “He’s tall and has blonde hair and very blue eyes. And, oh my God, he’s so polite! He doesn’t talk at all like the guys we know in school, Kel. He’s very articulate.”
“Huh?” Raven asked. “What does that mean?”
Kelly laughed. “Now I know why you’re flunking English, Raven. It means well-spoken or eloquent. Do you know what that means?”
“Whatever,” Raven stood. “I’m going swimming. Our day is wasting away, and it’s our last one. Anyone want to join?”
“I will,” Layla rose and followed Raven into the water.
McKenna relaxed on her blanket, letting the small waves splash at her feet. The sun felt hot on her shoulders. Earlier she had lathered up with sunscreen so that her skin wouldn’t burn. She had tied her hair in a knot on the top of her head. She felt naked in her new bikini.
She was content to stay right where she was and watch her friends swimming in the deep end of the lake. She was glad they were having fun and wished she had the courage to join them.
She turned her head to the sound of Dane’s voice. He was standing at the edge of the woods, and he motioned to her. She glanced at her friends, got to her feet, and walked toward him.
“Look, Dane,” she started to say.
“What in heaven’s name are you wearing?” he asked.
McKenna glanced down at herself, and her face flamed. She had forgotten all about the bathing suit. “It’s a bikini,” she said defensively. “You don’t know what a bikini is?”
“Not sure if I want to. Do you know what that thing is doing to me?”
“Look, if you don’t stop this, you’re going to get me into all kinds of trouble. Don’t you understand? My parents are very overprotective of me. They won’t even let me date or drive. I can’t be seen with you.”
“I’ll be careful,” he insisted. “I won’t let them see me.”
“Please,” McKenna pleaded. “Please just go away and leave me alone.”
“I can’t, McKenna.” He pressed his lips together, and his shoulders slumped.
“You have to,” she insisted.
She left him standing there and returned to the beach.
Kelly was stretched out on her belly on the blanket when McKenna got back. “Where’d you go?” she asked.
“Nowhere.” She sat down and pulled up her legs, hugging her knees to her chest. Reaching up, she undid the knot on top of her head and let her hair down. It cascaded around her shoulders, hiding her face. For some reason, she felt like crying. She thought maybe it was because Dane wouldn’t leave her alone. Or perhaps it was because, deep down, she didn’t want him to. Each time he showed up, it was harder for her to walk away. She didn’t know him, yet she was feeling things she never felt before. It made her miserable.
“Are you okay, Kenny?” Kelly asked. “You seem kind of down.”
McKenna rubbed her eyes. They were burning. “I’m fine,” she said. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“About?” Kelly asked.
“About Dane. He keeps coming around, and he’s going to get me in trouble with my parents. I’ve tried to tell him to leave me alone, but he says he can’t. I don’t even know what that means.”
“You were just with him?”
McKenna nodded. “Yes, over in the clearing.”
Kelly sat up suddenly, her eyes searching the woods.
McKenna noticed her looking. “He’s gone,” she said, a sadness in her voice.
“Where does he go? Does he live close by?”
“I don’t know,” McKenna said miserably. “I’m so busy telling him to leave me alone that I haven’t found out anything about him. All I can think about is how upset my parents will be if they find out some guy is stalking me.”
Kelly screwed up her face in a half-smile, half frown. “When are you going to see him again?”
McKenna grew thoughtful. “I don’t know. He just shows up. And he leaves the same way.”
“Well, that’s not creepy.” Kelly laughed.
McKenna ignored her remark. “Every time he shows up, I almost don’t want him to leave. I don’t know what to do.”
“Maybe you’ll see him again. But he better not mess with you cuz if he does, then he has to mess with me. Got it?”
McKenna gave a short laugh. “Got it, Kel.”
The weekend was almost over, and the ones that hadn’t left already were packing up their cars, folding up tents, and taking one last swim. McKenna’s parents decided to stay until the morning. McKenna was glad. The hardest part about coming to the lake was going home.
Kelly resolved to stay with McKenna, just in case. Raven and Layla already left for home. She would catch a ride home with McKenna and her parents.
They sat together on the picnic table and watched the others pack. The evening had turned chilly. McKenna and Kelly wrapped themselves in heavy blankets. A campfire burned close by, but it wasn’t warm enough for them to feel the heat.
“It’s getting cooler,” Kelly said while peeling the polish from her nails.
“Yeah,” McKenna answered absently.
“Back to school soon.”
“Yeah.” McKenna was absorbed in picking a piece of lint from her blanket.
“I think I’ll quit school.”
“Yeah.” McKenna finally grasped the piece of lint, and she now rolled into a tiny ball between her fingers.
Kelly slapped her knees with her hands. “I knew it!” she cried, her finger pointing in McKenna’s face.
“Huh?” McKenna turned her face toward Kelly, but her eyes were distant.
“Kenny.” Kelly snapped her fingers in McKenna’s face. “Yoo-hoo, earth to McKenna Dunn.”
McKenna’s eyes widened, and she blinked several times.
“Where have you been, Kenny? I’ve been talking to you for the last five minutes. So far, the only thing you’ve said is ‘Yeah.’”
“I’m sorry, Kel. I’m just not here, I guess.”
“You’re really not.” Kelly agreed. “Is it Dane?”
“Dane? Why would you say that?”
“Because that’s the only reason you’re so far away. Dane’s been on your mind a lot. You’re having a hard time letting go, aren’t you?”
“I’ve barely spoken to him other than telling him to get lost.” She flicked the small ball of lint toward the fire. “I don’t have any idea who he is, where he comes from, or where he goes when he disappears.”
“You know,” Kelly turned toward her. “You never say he leaves.”
“You always say he disappears. What does he do, vanish into thin air?” She snapped her fingers and made a poof sound.
“He might as well. That’s how it feels.”
Kelly laughed. “I’d like to see that.”
The tears shimmered in McKenna’s eyes as she finally broke into a smile.
“Okay,” Kelly shifted her position to face McKenna. “Here’s what I’m thinking. Maybe it would help if you did talk to him. You could find out where he lives, what he does when he’s not bothering strange girls on the beach.” At this comment, Kelly grinned widely.
“Why should I do that?”
“Because he just might turn out to be an asshole.” Kelly threw back her head and laughed. “Hey,” she spread her hands, “You never know. It just might be the answer to all of your problems.”
“Kel, you’re a nut.”
“Says the other nut.” Kelly laughed again. “I think you should take a walk.”
“But what about my mother? She’ll have a cow if I go missing.”
“You won’t go missing,” Kelly said. “I’ll keep Mom and Pop’s busy. You’ll be taking a short nap.”
McKenna shook her head in amazement. “I’m glad you’re my friend,” she chuckled.
Kelly wiggled her eyebrows. “Yes, you are.”
“Okay, I’ll go for a walk.” She slid off the picnic table, careful not to pick up any splinters. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I always do,” Kelly grinned. “Oh, and don’t forget to take a sweater. It’s getting chilly.”
“Yes, Mother,” McKenna threw over her shoulder as she walked to her tent for her hoodie.
# # #
Kelly watched her friend disappear into the woods. She knew she didn’t have all the answers, but she did know that this was something McKenna needed to do. No, had to do. This obsession would ruin her if she didn’t take it to fruition. Kelly already knew this deep in her heart because she could see. Now she needed McKenna to see who the real Dane was.
The woods were dark and foreboding as McKenna walked the path. She had no idea which way to go, no idea where Dane would be. She was always on the beach when he appeared.
Appeared. McKenna chuckled to herself. Kelly was right about that. Maybe she should go back to the beach, but her mother might see her. She was better off just strolling the woods, no matter how dark they were.
“What are you doing out here alone?”
McKenna spun around. Her heart had picked up speed and now pounded in her chest. “Dane?”
“It’s me. What are you doing out here?”
She felt her face flame and was suddenly glad the woods were dark. She paused, not sure how to answer him. Then she decided to throw caution to the wind and dive in, headfirst. “Well,” she cleared her throat. “I’m looking for you.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes studying her. “Why?”
She didn’t know how to answer that, so she shrugged.
“What can I do for you?” He raised his eyebrows. “You’ve been telling me to leave you alone. I tried to be friendly, McKenna. I tried not to scare you. But you’re so afraid of your parents that I don’t think I’m the problem.”
“I’m sorry, Dane,” she whispered.
“What changed your mind?”
“My friend. She said it might help if I talked to you.”
“Help with what?”
McKenna hesitated, unsure of what to say. She pressed her lips together, trying to think, trying to form the words in her mind that would make sense. Before she could think of anything, she opened her mouth and said, “She said it might help me understand the feelings I’m having about you.”
“You have feelings for me.” It was more of a statement.
“This was a bad idea,” she mumbled. She started to walk away from him.
“McKenna, wait.” Dane reached out and grasped her arm.
She spun around and gave him an icy stare. “Let me go.”
“Please, wait. Give me a minute. I’m sorry, but this is all so sudden.” He held onto her arm and turned her to him. Gently, he lifted her chin. His eyes sought hers in the dimness of the forest. “McKenna,” his voice was husky. “May I kiss you?”
“No,” she whispered. “I have to leave. Please let go.”
Dane shook his head. “You had a reason to search for me. Can you tell me what it is?”
“I don’t know. I’m confused right now.”
“Please, may I kiss you?”
“No,” she said again, her voice trembling. Then she said, “Yes,” her throat tight with apprehension.
He leaned forward, his lips brushing hers, soft and gentle, sweet like apples.
She leaned against him, and he wrapped his arms tighter around her.
“Dane,” she whispered against his mouth. “I can’t stand any longer.”
“I’ll hold you.”
A yearning kindled inside of her. A sense of longing she didn’t understand. She only knew she didn’t want it to end, but she stepped back, her face flushed.
“We leave tomorrow,” she blurted out. She suddenly felt like crying but didn’t know why. She did want Dane to go away.
As always, the ride home seemed faster than the ride there. McKenna and Kelly sat in the back of the SUV. McKenna had been especially quiet when she returned from the woods. Her eyes were distant. Her mouth turned down in a frown. She had not spoken unless someone spoke to her first. She wasn’t ready to share.
Kelly studied her from the corner of her eye as they rode in silence. Finally, she felt she had to say something. “Kenny,” she spoke softly so that McKenna’s parents would not hear her. “How did it go? With Dane, I mean. Did you find him? Were you able to talk to him?”
McKenna nodded but still said nothing.
“Well? How did it go? Did you find out anything?”
This time McKenna shook her head no.
“No? Well, aren’t you going to tell me what happened out there?” She demanded.
McKenna turned sideways on her seat and faced Kelly. “Kel,” she said, her mouth curving into a smile. “He kissed me.”
Kelly’s eyes grew wide, her whisper loud in the confines of the car. “He kissed you?”
McKenna nodded her face flushing, making her freckles stand out brighter.
“He kissed you,” Kelly repeated as she fell back against the seat. “How-?”
“Um, with his lips?” Mckenna giggled.
Kelly forced a smile. “So, how was it?” she asked.
“Nice?” Kelly echoed loudly.
McKenna winced. “Hush!”
“Oops. Sorry.” Kelly’s face turned red. “But that’s all you have to say. Nice?”
“Don’t have anything to compare it with?” she said as a question.
“I guess not. How did it happen? You have to give me all the gory details.” She gave McKenna an evil grin and wiggled her eyebrows.
McKenna shrugged. “It just kind of happened. He has very soft lips, and he’s so gentle. He put his hands on my face like this,” McKenna cupped Kelly’s face in her hands. “Then he moved in real slow, like this.” She moved closer to Kelly’s face.
Kelly’s eyes were wide with anticipation. “And then?” she asked.
“And then,” McKenna whispered, “he did this.” She puckered up her lips and made loud kissing noises, her head turning from side to side.
Kelly smacked her on the arm. “Very funny,” she said.
“I thought so,” McKenna gave a short laugh. “But truthfully, Kel, I don’t know what I’m feeling now.”
“You’ve never been kissed before,” Kelly reminded her. “Do you think you’ll see him again?”
McKenna tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. But I think I want to.”
“You think you want to?”
“I’m so confused. I don’t know how to answer that. I guess when we go back to the campgrounds next weekend, I’ll find out for sure.”
The blankets on McKenna’s bed were all askew when she woke up the following morning. She had been dreaming during the night—something she rarely did. And on the nights she did dream, she never could remember them.
The sun had not yet risen. The house was chilly after the warmth of her bed, and McKenna debated on crawling back under the warm covers. But now, she was wide awake.
She made her way down the stairs and spied the light on in the kitchen. She could smell the aroma of freshly made coffee. Her grandfather was sitting at the table, reading the newspaper, a cup of coffee in front of him.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” he smiled at her. “You’re up early.”
McKenna glanced at the clock above the sink. It was half-past six.
“Mornin’, Grandpa.” She sauntered over to him and, as usual, kissed him on the top of his bald head. “Yea, I have to get used to it, I guess.”
“School starting soon?” he asked as he studied her.
“Yep, next month.”
“Hmm.” He rattled his newspaper and went back to reading.
She poured herself a cup of coffee and joined her grandfather at the table. The only sound in the room was the rattle of her grandfather’s newspaper.
It wasn’t long before she heard her parent’s footsteps on the stairs.
“Good morning,” her father declared. “How’s everyone this morning? Are we all recovered from the weekend?”
McKenna glanced up at him. She thought the guilt would show on her face, so she lowered her gaze to hide the red stain that was creeping up her neck.
She knew she was paranoid. There was no way her father found out about Dane, about Dane kissing her. The only other person that knew was Kelly, and she would never tell.
“McKenna, you’re up early,” her mother repeated her grandfather’s words. “Why didn’t you make the coffee?”
McKenna looked up at her mother, confusion on her face. “But the coffee’s ready,” she said in defense. “Grandpa made it.”
Her parents glanced at each other.
“Well,” Connor said. “He must have drunk it all. I’ll just make some more.”
“I didn’t drink it all,” Grandpa mumbled from the table. “I’m not senile. Not yet, anyway.” He shook the newspaper loudly in annoyance.
Her father ran the water in the kitchen sink, filling the coffee carafe, then adding the coffee grounds to the dispenser. He hummed under his breath as he worked. When he finished, he left the room to go upstairs and get dressed.
“Did you have a good time this weekend, McKenna?” her mother asked, setting coffee cups on the table along with napkins and a maple pecan pastry. “Doesn’t that look good?” she said to herself.
“Am I in The Twilight Zone?” McKenna blurted.
Her mother turned to her. “The Twilight Zone? What on earth are you talking about?”
“Grrrr,” she growled, anger making her face turn a bright red. She turned to her grandfather.
He shrugged his shoulders and continued reading the newspaper.
“McKenna, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her mother plunked a butter knife down on the table. “The Twilight Zone? Why you’re not even old enough to remember that show!”
“Oh, my God, Mother!” she shouted, then whirled from the kitchen and up the stairs. She ran up the stairs to her room and angrily slammed the door. She fell onto her bed, grabbed her pillow, and hugged it to her chest.
A light knock sounded on her door. Her grandmother opened it and peeked her head in. “We don’t slam doors in this house, child,” she said.
“I know, Grandma, I’m sorry.”
“May I come in, McKenna?” She opened the door farther.
“Of course, Grandma, come in.”
Her grandmother entered the room and sat down on the bed, re-pinning a hair clip that had come loose from her hair. “What’s wrong, child?” she asked. She patted the hook to make sure it was secure.
“Nothing’s wrong.” Her lower lip trembled, and she glanced up at the ceiling. “Oh, everything’s wrong, Grandma. I’m so tired of the way Mother and Dad treat you and Grandpa. I’m sick of being treated like a child. I’m just sick of everything.”
Her grandmother didn’t speak.
“Well,” McKenna blurted. “I have my own little secret now, and I’m never going to let them in on it.” She turned her eyes to her grandmother. “Can I tell you my secret, Grandma? Will you promise not to tell them?”
“I don’t know if I can keep a promise like that, McKenna if it’s not in your best interest.”
“But you have to,” McKenna’s green eyes pleaded with her. “The only other person I can talk to is Kelly. She already knows everything.”
“Go on, then,” she said. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll see.”
McKenna leaned closer to her, lowering her voice. “I met someone, Grandma, at the lake.”
“At first, I was afraid of him. You know, I’m seventeen, Grandma, and I’ve never been able to date or have a boyfriend, so I don’t know what to expect. But Grandma,” Her eyes glittered with her secret. “He asked if he could kiss me, and I said yes.”
Grandma placed a hand on her bosom. “He kissed you?”
“Yes, he kissed me. Oh, Grandma,” McKenna turned scarlet at the admission. “I don’t know how I feel about him.”
“Oh, dear.” A look of fear briefly crossed her grandmother’s face. She rubbed her hands on her cheeks and looked down at her lap. “You say Kelly knows?”
“Yes, Grandma, she does. She told me to talk to him since I was feeling confused. She said I needed to find out if he was for real, you know, to make sure he wasn’t leading me on. And to find out where he comes from and things like that.”
“And did you find out, child?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t because that’s when he kissed me.
McKenna wished her grandparents would just this one time come to the lake with them. Instead, they stood in the doorway and waved goodbye. She didn’t know why they didn’t like camping. McKenna just assumed it was because they were too old.
She pulled her phone out of her backpack, opened the Spotify app, and plugged her earbuds into her ears. She hoped this would help the trip go faster. It would block out any conversation her mother might try to have with her. McKenna didn’t want to be included or questioned about anything or anyone. She only wanted to be left alone.
Her eyes grew heavy as her favorite music drifted from the earbuds. She wondered if Dane would be at the campgrounds. She hoped he would.
She hoped he would kiss her again.
It seemed only a few minutes before her father shook her awake. She opened her eyes and pulled the earbuds out of her ears.
“We’re here, sleepyhead,” he chuckled. “Time to wake up. We have lots to do.”
McKenna sat up and looked around, her mind still foggy. “We’re here?” she asked.
“Come on,” her mother said. “We have to unload, and we need your help.”
She yawned widely, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Her phone was still blasting the music through her earbuds, so she closed out the Spotify app and put her earbuds away. She crawled from the car, her eyes anxiously scanning the campgrounds.
It was still early. The Dunn’s discovered the sight used previously was available, so they unloaded the car, pitched their tents, and set up the picnic table. McKenna volunteered to search for kindling and logs for the fire.
“Take the basket,” Sarah called, shaking her head.
McKenna turned around, walked back to her mother, and took the wood basket from her hands.
“Honestly, McKenna, I don’t know where your mind is half the time.”
She kept her eyes on the ground as she walked, searching for kindling to start a fire. The campground left few pickings this late in the season, so she strolled toward the woods. Once she reached the clearing, she disappeared into the trees.
The forest was dark, cool, the air filled with the scent of purple cresses, goldenrod, and aster. McKenna could hear the woodpeckers tapping on the trees. The sound of the otters purring and squealing as they played in the muddy water on the bank reached her ears from far off.
McKenna hummed as she strolled along, swinging the empty wood basket on her arm. She honestly was searching for firewood. To verify this to herself, she reached down, picked up a few small sticks, and placed them in the basket. Her eyes searched for dead tree limbs and possibly dead logs that weren’t too wet from the moss. She was squatting down, picking up some small logs she had found when she heard Dane’s voice behind her.
She rose to her feet and slowly turned around. “It’s me,” she said, warmth spreading through her at the sight of him.
At first, he hesitated, then slowly, he walked toward her. “I’ve been looking for you.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. “I couldn’t find you. I didn’t know where you went.”
Setting the basket down on the ground, she moved closer to him, her eyes narrowing as she studied him. A chill went through her. “I went home, Dane,” she said quietly. “Remember? I told you I had to go home.”
He gave a mirthless laugh. “Yes, I remember now. But I had forgotten. I’m glad you’re here now, McKenna. I’ve missed you.”
“You have?” The corners of her mouth turned up. She shook the feelings she had a moment ago. She had missed him, too.
“I would like to kiss you again, McKenna, if I may?”
Joy bubbled up in her, and the mood her mother had left her with lifted. “I would like that, too, Dane.”
He stepped forward and tucked her into his arms. His body was warm against her cheek, and she breathed in the scent of him. He smelled like fresh air, green grass, and the salt of the sea. She raised her face to him. When he kissed her, his lips were warm, his kiss gentle. A smile tugged at his mouth when he released her.
She lost track of time. She pushed thoughts of her parents to the back of her mind. She didn’t want to think they were waiting for her to come back with firewood. She had forgotten everything except Dane and how he kissed her.
When her eyes traveled to the wood basket setting on the ground a few feet away, her heart quickened, and she let go of his embrace.
“I have to go!” she cried.
“No, don’t leave.” He pulled her close. His hands were warm through her shirt, making her shiver suddenly. He kissed her again.
When she pulled away and opened her eyes, she said very weakly, “But, Dane, I have to go.”
“Please, McKenna, just a few more minutes. I’ve missed you so much. I want to show you something.”
“But I have to go,” her protest was weak. She didn’t want to go. Not really.
He took her hand, and they left the path, heading deeper into the darkness of the trees. A few minutes later, he stopped, his eyes smiling with pride.
“This is it,” he said. She stood in front of a run-down cabin nestled between several large oak trees. “Come on,” he reached for her hand.
He pushed a shoulder against the rotted door and forced it open. Once again, taking her hand, he led her inside.
The cabin was small, and old furniture took up any living space. There was no kitchen or bathroom.
“Dane, whose cabin is this? It looks ancient.”
“It’s mine,” he said proudly.
“What’s in there?” she asked, pointing to the other room.
“The bedroom,” he said. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
McKenna walked past him into the small bedroom. The bed was old, the mattress showing some mold. “You’re not still living here, are you?”
He laughed. “No,” he said, his laugh turning into a chuckle. “Why would you think that? Come here,” he murmured, his arms outstretched.
She walked into his embrace. His eyes sparkled as he gazed down at her. He bent his head, his lips touching hers. She felt the warmth travel down her body, and she pulled away, breathless.
“Where on earth have you been?”
McKenna touched a finger to her lips. They felt swollen and numb from Dane’s kisses. She thought she could kiss Dane forever and never stop. It was hard to leave the cabin even though she knew what she would face when she got back to camp.
“I’ve been looking for wood.” She shifted from one foot to the other, her eyes fixated on the almost empty wood basket.
“You’ve been gone for hours, McKenna,” her dad chimed in. “We were getting worried about you. I was just about to come to look for you.”
She glanced up in alarm. “You don’t have to do that,” she said, her voice trembling. “I know my way around here.”
“So, where is all this wood you were supposedly looking for?” Her mother grabbed the basket from McKenna’s fingers and shook it at her.
McKenna stared at the few bits of wood that lay in the basket. “I couldn’t find any.”
“You couldn’t find any? With all of the trees around this lake, you couldn’t find any wood.”
She turned to Conner and threw a hand in the air, letting it fall and slap her thigh in frustration. “Now, what do we do?”
Connor gently removed the basket from Sarah’s tight grip. “I’ll get the wood,” he said. “You girls finish setting up camp, as much as you can.”
When he was gone, her mother stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at her. “You do entirely too much lollygagging, young lady. I don’t know what to do to shake you up.”
“What’s lollygagging mean?”
“Why don’t you Google it. You’re always on the damn phone anyway.” Her mother turned and walked away.
Without getting instructions from her mother about what she was supposed to do, McKenna sat down at the picnic table and pulled out her phone. She opened the Google app and typed in lollygagging. The definition came up almost instantly: to spend time idly, aimlessly, or foolishly : dawdle.
Were it not for her mother’s anger and the punishment she was likely to receive, McKenna would have screamed with laughter. She wasn’t spending her time foolishly. She remained quiet and let her mind drift back to the cabin and Dane.
“Come on,” Dane reached out a hand to her. “I have something to show you.”
She had been able to sneak away once her parents had fallen asleep in their tent. She had tiptoed out of the camp to find Dane waiting for her in the clearing. She took his hand and followed him willingly, her footsteps making no sound on the path.
She knew they were going to the cabin but didn’t know why until she stepped from the tree’s shadows.
Flickering lights were coming from the windows.
She looked up at him, her eyes questioning.
He grinned. “Come see.”
McKenna felt like she stepped back in time.
Instead of electric lights, there were oil lamps placed about the room. A fire was burning in the fireplace. The old furniture was gone, the floor swept. Placed in front of the fire were a thick rug and a few soft pillows.
“Dane,” she turned to him. “You did all of this?”
“I did,” he admitted. “We can’t sit on the beach all night. Do you like it?”
“I love it,” she whispered.
He led her to the fireplace, and they sat down on the rugs. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips against hers. She could feel his breath on her face when he spoke. She breathed it in as if it were life-saving oxygen.
“I love you, McKenna. I don’t want to lose you. I wanted to do something special tonight, for you, for us.”
He pulled a red ribbon from his pocket.
She looked at him with inquiring eyes.
“Have you ever heard of hand-fasting?”
“Yes,” he smiled. “Its origins are Celtic and Druid. The Irish and Scottish practiced it long ago. It’s what couples did as a promise to each other for one year.”
She stayed quiet, watching his face in the light from the fire.
“See, back then,” he scooted closer to her and took her hand. “There weren’t many ministers, so they had to travel from town to town instead of staying in one place,” he explained as he wrapped their hands together with the ribbon. “Couples that wanted to be married didn’t want to wait for the minister, especially since they never knew when one would be arriving.”
McKenna felt the blush creep up her neck and into her cheeks at the thought of marriage.
“What I want to know, McKenna is, would you want to be hand-fasted to me? Do you think you would want to spend eternity with me? To someday be my wife?”
“Dane!” she breathed, one hand holding her chest. “Do you think we can?”
“Of course, we can. We’re adults.”
She lowered her head and stared at the ribbon. “I’m not,” she whispered. “I’m only seventeen.”
He lifted her chin with his hand. “It’s alright, McKenna. We can hand-fast for one year. Then you will be eighteen.”
“Yes!” she cried. “yes, yes, yes. I love you, too!”
With great care, he tightened the red ribbon around their hands so that they were bound together. He leaned forward and kissed her on the lips.
“McKenna,” he said quietly. I take thee to be my love, in sunshine and rain, in lean times and plenty, in sickness and health, under the starry night sky, and over the rainbow, I promise to love you, forever and a day.
She took a deep breath. “Dane,” she whispered. I take thee to be my love, in sunshine and rain, in lean times and plenty, in sickness and health, under the starry night sky, and over the rainbow, I promise to love you, forever and a day.
He pulled her close against him, his face buried in her hair. She thought he was whispering to her, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. It wasn’t until she felt the dampness against her neck that she realized he was crying.
“Dane,” she breathed. “Dane, don’t cry.”
“I’m sorry, McKenna. It’s just that I’ve been so lonely for so long. I didn’t think there would ever be anyone that could see me.”
What an odd thing to say, she thought as she rose to her knees, wrapping comforting arms around his neck. Gently, she kissed him. When she pulled away, his eyes were glistening with unshed tears. She kissed his cheeks, salty from the tears he had already shed. “I love you, Dane,” she said softly.
Moving his body with hers, he lay her down on the rug. His kisses went from soft and sweet to urgent and demanding. “McKenna,” he cried softly. “I don’t know if I can let you go.”
“I don’t know if I can let you go, either.” She started to cry. “I’ll die if I have to leave you. What are we going to do?”
Dane shook his head without answering. He drew her back into his arms and kissed her gently. “I’m never going to let you go. I love you. And I need you, McKenna.”
He touched her face, studied her eyes. Then he bent his head and kissed her gently. She responded eagerly.
Dane is what she had always wanted. To feel this way, away from this world, with a man she loved and that loved her. McKenna flew higher and higher until crying out in happiness. She never wanted to touch down.
She wept quietly in the back seat of the Dunn’s SUV, the red ribbon gripped tightly in her hands. She felt her heart shattering into a million pieces. Her tears would not subside. How was she supposed to get through the week? And summer was almost gone. How would she ever get through the winter?
Connor backed the car into the driveway, leaving enough room to unpack the camping equipment.
“McKenna, please help us unload. Then we can all go in and get a decent shower.”
McKenna grabbed the car door handle and flung it open. “I can’t, mother,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
“McKenna!” Sarah called angrily after her.
“Leave her go, Sarah,” Connor said softly. “The girl is overtired.”
“Aren’t we all,” Sarah grumbled but let her daughter go.
McKenna ran to her room, slammed the door closed, and fell onto her bed. Agonizing sobs slammed through her, but she couldn’t seem to stop them.
“What’s wrong, child?” Her grandmother poked her head in the door. When she saw McKenna’s distress, she came into the room and closed the door behind her.
McKenna still couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She didn’t think her grandmother would understand what she was going through. Her grandmother was too old.
Grandma sat down on the bed next to McKenna and stroked her hair. “Something must be wrong, child. I’ve never seen you this upset before.”
“I’m okay, Grandma,” McKenna insisted. Then she started to weep out of control, unable to speak.
“Oh, child, come here.” Her grandmother wrapped her arms around McKenna and held her against her ample bosom, rocking her gently back and forth. “Everything is going to be all right. It can’t be that bad.”
“But it is,” McKenna insisted, then “Oh, Grandma,” she howled. “What am I supposed to do? I’m in love with him.”
“Oh,” Grandma murmured, now understanding. “It will be all right. All wounds take time to heal.”
McKenna sobbed harder. “I don’t have a wound, Grandma. He loves me, too. But I had to leave him to come home. Oh, Grandma, this hurts so bad.”
“I know it does, child,” Grandma said as she rocked McKenna back and forth like a baby.
She felt herself growing sleepy when the sharp knock came on her door.
“McKenna!” It was her mother.
McKenna didn’t answer her. Her eyelids were growing heavy, and her sobs had turned to soft hiccups. It was warm and soothing in her grandmother’s arms. She preferred to stay there.
The door opened, and her mother came into the room. “McKenna, what is wrong with you?”
McKenna said nothing, only fought to keep her eyes open.
“McKenna, I’m making a doctor’s appointment for you. There’s something wrong with you that you’re not telling me. Maybe you’ll talk to Dr. Winchell. She’s always been a good listener.”
“I’m not sick,” she said drowsily. “I don’t need a doctor. I have Grandma, don’t I, Grandma?”
Grandma only nodded her head as she continued to rock her.
“It doesn’t matter,” her mother insisted. “You’re going to go. I’ll call them today and make the appointment.”
The examination table was cold and uncomfortable. McKenna lay naked under a paper sheet, wishing the doctor would hurry up. She was shivering, and her feet were cold. Her hands felt like ice. Why did they bother putting her in this position if the doctor wasn’t ready? She felt so degraded.
Finally, Dr. Winchell stepped into the room. “Are you ready, McKenna?”
She wanted to say no.
“This is your first pap smear?”
“Yes,” she answered.
The doctor patted her knee with ice-cold hands. Mckenna shivered again.
She lay back and stared at the pictures on the ceiling and thought, how silly was it to put pictures on the ceiling. Especially when she had to lay here, very still, her feet in the stirrups, with her legs spread wide and a doctor’s face inches from her private parts. The intrusion of the doctor’s instruments wasn’t very painful, but she still felt violated.
Dr. Winchell tapped her on the knee. “Ok, McKenna. You can sit up now.”
McKenna dressed quickly and found the doctor at her desk, her mother seated in front of her. At the sight of her mother, she stopped.
“Does she have to be here?”
“I’m sorry, McKenna,” Dr. Winchell apologized. “but you’re underage. A parent or guardian has to be present.”
She glanced at her mother, but her mother was looking straight ahead.
Unwillingly, Mckenna took the chair next to her, sliding it a few inches away from her.
“Okay,” Dr. Winchell perused the documents in front of her. “Everything looks good. Blood pressure normal, triglycerides normal. You’re low on Vitamin D. You might want to start taking a multiple vitamin like Centrum since you’re getting older.”
“What about...” Sarah sat on the edge of her chair. She seemed anxious about something.
“Yes,” the doctor nodded. “According to medical journals, virginity is not something that’s easily discovered during a pap smear, Mrs. Dunn. But I believe it is. And yes, I believe McKenna is still a virgin.”
Dr. Winchell’s gaze turned to McKenna. “I’m sorry, McKenna, but you are underage, and in this state, and a parent or guardian has to be with you.”
McKenna stared at the doctor. “But.” She stopped and bit her bottom lip. She wouldn’t tell her mother about Dane. Instead, her anger intensified, and she lashed out, “Are you satisfied, mother? Are you happy your little girl is still a little girl?”
“Stop it, McKenna,” Sarah said sharply.
McKenna stared at her, the tears forming in her eyes. “I hate you, mother,” she hissed and ran from the room sobbing.
# # #
She sought comfort in her bed, the covers pulled up to her chin. She felt sick inside. It took all her effort to crawl from the bed to the bathroom. She spent the entire week in her room, staring out the window or sleeping.
Now the weekend was here, and instead of McKenna spending the weekend in Danes’ arms, her parents decided to stay home. They felt she was too sick to go camping at the lake. It only made her hate them more.
Grandma knocked softly on her door and stuck her head into the room. “May I come in, child?”
McKenna responded with a quick nod. She felt unable to start a conversation without crying.
The bed sagged beneath Grandma’s weight as she sat next to McKenna. “Is there anything I can do for you, McKenna?”
“No, Grandma. There’s nothing you can do. There’s only one thing that’s going to help me. But now I’m not even able to go back to the lake. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m sure he’s there looking for me!”
“But you don’t seem to understand, McKenna.”
“Understand what, Grandma?” she asked, the tears welling up in her eyes. “Just what am I supposed to understand? I’m new at this. I don’t know anything about love. And my mother sure isn’t going to tell me. Do you know that Dane and I are hand-fasted? That means we are married, Grandma!”
“Goodness,” Grandma’s eyes grew wide, and she placed a trembling hand over her bosom. “I know what hand-fasting is, McKenna.”
“And,” McKenna continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “We made love the last night we were together. Mother sure doesn’t know about that. Oh, how I would love to rub that in her face. If only I had the guts. But when she took me to the doctor, the doctor told her that I’m still a virgin. How is that possible?”
A look of fear quickly crossed her grandmother’s face but disappeared so fast McKenna wasn’t sure it had even been there. “I don’t have an answer for that. But I do have some advice if you’re willing to take it.”
“I’m willing to listen to anything that will help. I can’t take feeling this way anymore. I feel like I’m going to die.”
“You’re not going to die,” Grandma chuckled. “You’ve got a lot of time left.”
“So, what’s your advice, Grandma?”
Grandma took a deep breath. “Get your behind out of this bed. Take a shower. Join the family for meals. Spend time with your friends. They love you, and they’re worried about you. It’s possible that talking with them might help you. You don’t seem to understand that you could be sabotaging yourself.”
She nodded. “Your parents are never going back to the lake as long as you are acting this way. They suspect that the lake is the reason you are so depressed. And they are right. Why are you giving them ammunition?”
“Yes, child. You’re giving them a reason to keep you from the lake.”
“Oh, Grandma, I never thought of that.”
“Of course, you didn’t,” Grandma laughed. “That’s why you have me.”
McKenna hugged her tightly around the neck. “And I’m so glad I have you. Where would I be without you?”
“That’s why I’m here, child.”
McKenna took her grandmother’s advice. She forced herself to get out of bed, take a nice long shower, and dress in a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She brushed her long red hair out to let it dry naturally, took a quick peek in the mirror, and headed downstairs.
She found her parents in the kitchen. Her grandparents were nowhere to be found.
“Where’s Grandma and Grandpa?” she asked.
“Kenna, honey, sit down.” Her dad held a chair out for her. “We need to talk to you.”
“My, don’t you look nice,” her mother turned from the stove, interrupting her father.
“I’m feeling much better, Mom,” she lied. “What’s for dinner?”
“And an appetite? Goodness, what have you done with my daughter,” her mother laughed at her joke. “I’m glad you’re finally hungry. It’s meatloaf tonight.”
McKenna hated meatloaf, but she forced a smile. “Sounds yummy. Need any help?”
“No, I’ve got it under control. And your dad can help if I need it.”
“Great,” McKenna bounced out of the room. “I’m going to call Kelly,” she tossed over her shoulder.
She stopped short as soon as she passed the doorway leading into the living room. She stood on the other side of the wall and listened to her parent’s conversation. She was sick and tired of the secret glances passing between them. The things they wouldn’t tell her she needed to know, and she needed to know now.
“You were going to tell her.”
McKenna’s heart jumped up to her throat.
“It’s time, Sarah. Don’t you think?”
“It’s never going to be time,” she hissed. “You’re the one that created this mess. You just had to go against my wishes and take her in that boat. And after you were drinking.”
“Sarah, stop,” her father begged. “I haven’t touched a drink since that day.”
“I won’t stop. I’ve hated you ever since that moment, and I don’t know how to get past it.”
McKenna held her breath. What was this was all about?
“It was an accident. A terrible one, I admit. But maybe we can get past it by telling the truth.”
“You were so drunk, Connor,” she almost shouted.
“I know I was, Sarah. You don’t have to keep reminding me.”
“She fell in the lake because of you!” Sarah cried.
“Please, lower your voice. I don’t care if you want to keep this godawful secret or shout it to the rooftops. What I do want is for you to make up your mind. What I don’t want is our daughter finding out this way!”
McKenna stood against the wall, the conversation coming from the kitchen confusing her more than she was. Why would falling in the lake cause this much chaos? The answer came in her mother’s following declaration.
“She drowned because of you, Conner!”
Did her mother say she drowned? McKenna couldn’t be sure. She heard kitchen chair legs scraping on the floor, then a heavy sigh as one of them sat down. She assumed her mother ran out of steam.
But that wasn’t the case. The following words McKenna’s mother spoke rocked her entire world forever.
“She died because of you!”
McKenna stood in shock against the wall. She died? How was that possible. She was here, flesh and blood and bone. She couldn’t be dead.
Her legs felt heavy as she pushed herself away from the wall and climbed the steps to her bedroom. She fell on her bed, unable to feel anything. Her parents’ argument ran through her mind repeatedly.
She drowned? She died?
She drowned. She died.
Was that why they shared all the hidden glances and conversations? Was this the big secret?
The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs sent McKenna into a panic. She sat up on the bed. Not knowing what else to do, she grabbed her cell phone and pressed it to her ear.
“Yeah,” she nodded her head. “Yeah, Kel,” she said. “Yeah, it was a great time. I sure hope we can do it again soon.”
Her mother peeked her head in, her eyes questioning.
McKenna gave her the thumbs up.
Satisfied, her mother left the room, closing the door behind her.
McKenna dropped her phone on the bed and pressed a hand to her forehead. She needed to know more.
Rising from the bed, McKenna went to her computer and kicked it on. Her dad said that she was about three years old. She counted back on her fingers to find the year and plugged it into the search engine.
The words jumped out at her from the computer screen.
THREE-YEAR-OLD DROWNS IN MOSQUITO LAKE: FOUND ALIVE
She stared at the screen. Her eyes scanned the article.
“Three-year-old McKenna Dunn was found alive after falling from her father’s boat into Mosquito Lake. Her father, Connor Dunn, had been drinking but jumped in after his daughter. Dunn said he was in the water searching for her before giving up and calling 911. The search team arrived later but couldn’t find the little girl after searching for more than four hours. The toddler was presumed dead.
This reporter has learned that the parents found their daughter alive on the beach located beside Hillside Cemetery. McKenna Dunn is in good condition at St. Joseph’s Riverside Hospital, where she will be released into the custody of her parents tomorrow.”
She sat back in her chair.
Did she drown? But she didn’t die. That wasn’t possible.
And how did she get to the other side of the lake? She couldn’t have just washed up on the shore. The lake didn’t have waves like that.
Her mind was a kaleidoscope of images going around and around and around.
There was a brief knock on her door. She quickly closed the lid on her computer.
“Supper’s ready, Kenna,” her dad called through the door.
“Okay, I’ll be right there,” she answered. How was she ever going to eat dinner after information like this? And how was she ever going to force down meatloaf?
Meatloaf, she thought. Ugh.
Something told her there was more. It had to do with the strange looks her parents shared when she spoke of her grandparents. She hated eavesdropping but didn’t know what else to do.
When her mother decided they would go to the lake the following weekend, McKenna was elated and didn’t mind helping load the camping equipment and the coolers. She wanted to get on the road. The sooner the SUV was loaded, the sooner they could leave.
The trip seemed to take longer than the standard three hours. McKenna kept picking up her phone and checking the time.
The last time she did this, her mother turned around in her seat. “Are you checking to see if your friends are coming this weekend?” she asked.
“Um, yea,” she lied. “I thought they might, but I don’t have an answer yet.”
“Well, it would be nice if they could come again. I know they had a good time.”
Truthfully, she didn’t want her friends to come. She felt guilty about this because they had been her friends since kindergarten, and she loved them dearly. But if they were there, she would have to divide her time, and she just couldn’t. She had to be with Dane. She just had to.
It was close to the evening when they pulled into their campsite. McKenna jumped from the car and started pulling equipment from the SUV.
“Slow down, Kenna,” her dad laughed. “We’re going to be here all weekend.”
“I know, Dad,” she kept glancing around the campground, looking back over her shoulder toward the trees. She was afraid of giving herself away, but she was helpless to stop.
It seemed to take forever to unload everything and get her tent set up. Once she had finally accomplished this, even with her hands trembling with anxiety, she started to settle down a bit. Now she had to find a way out of camp so she could look for Dane.
As it turned out, her parents found it for her.
“Kenna, Mom, and I are going to walk the beach for a bit. You don’t mind being alone for a while, do you?”
“We’ve been coming here since I can remember. It’s like a second home. Take your time. Go walk the beach. Go, be romantic. The two of you need it.”
“I don’t know where you get these ideas, Kenna.” her dad laughed. “But we won’t be very long. What are you going to do?”
McKenna forced a yawn. “I think I just might hit my tent. I’m kinda tired. Then I can get a fresh start tomorrow.”
“That sounds like a good idea, Honey,” her mother said, making McKenna’s eyes widen in surprise. Honey? She couldn’t remember her mother ever calling her that.
Then she even surprised her more by pecking her on the cheek.
“We’ll see you in the morning.”
What the hell was going on?
Something had changed between her parents. The anger was no longer present. The tension no longer there. It seemed as if they had come to a significant decision, and they both happened to agree on the outcome.
She waited until they had disappeared before she ran to her tent, ruffled her blankets and sleeping bag so that it looked like she was there, then closed the zipper on the flap and left the campsite.
The blood was rushing in her ears by the time she reached the cabin. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She knew she was hyperventilating but couldn’t stop.
The cabin was dark when she arrived. Disappointment washed through her. Where could he be? Did she ruin things by not coming back last weekend?
Then she remembered. All the times he came for her were on the beach. The cabin was unique, a special place for the two of them, where no one could find them. The beach was there they first met.
McKenna turned and ran back to the beach, careful not to run into her parents. Her eyes searched the woods as she ran. Why, oh, why did she not ask him where he lived?
She was out of breath when she reached the shore. She sat down at the edge of the lake to slow her heartbeat. She pulled off her shoes and put her feet in the water to cool them.
She stared out into the night, hoping beyond hope that he was somewhere out there, watching, waiting for her. Her vision grew blurry as the tears started to come.
Was it over?
Had he lost faith in her?
Didn’t he love her anymore?
“I’m here, McKenna.”
“Dane!” She rose swiftly and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh my God, Dane. I couldn’t find you. I was so scared!”
“Shh.” He silenced her as his lips found hers. “I’m here,” he whispered against her cheek. “I’ll always be here.”
She followed him back to the cabin. After lighting the oil lamps, he took her in his arms.
“It’s been forever, Dane,” she cried softly against his chest. “I didn’t think I would ever get back here.”
“But you’re here now,” he murmured. “And we’re together again. I’ve missed you, McKenna.”
“It’s been horrible without you,” she admitted.
They sat down on the rugs that Dane laid down their first night together. She told him how her grandmother gave her the best advice of her life.
“Give your grandmother a great big thank you from me,” Dane laughed.
McKenna laughed with him. “I most certainly will,” she agreed. “So, how was your time without me?”
“Just horrible,” he echoed.
He placed his forehead against hers and stared into her eyes. “Really. McKenna, I love you. Nothing is going to change that. I don’t know how else to convince you.”
She brushed the hair from his forehead, her hand lingering on his face. “I do,” she whispered. She leaned forward and searched for his mouth. Her lips were soft, gentle, and hungry.
“You never go in the water,” Dane said over his shoulder as he stoked the fire. “I noticed that when your friends were here. When they were swimming, you never joined them.”
“I’m afraid of water,” she admitted, her face turning a light crimson.
“You’re afraid of water?” he echoed.
“I am,” she answered.
“And why is that, I wonder?”
“You would never believe it.”
“I’ll believe anything you tell me, McKenna.”
She nodded. “Because I drowned here.” Then she told him the rest.
He narrowed his eyes, listened intently to her words. When she finished, he was silent.
“You do believe me, don’t you?”
He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her closer. “Of course, I believe you. When did this happen?”
“I was around three years old.”
Dane nodded. “That explains a lot,” he said, almost to himself.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s nothing, McKenna. I’m just having some thoughts. I’m trying to put things together. You know, I’m afraid of water, too.”
He nodded his head. He glanced at her then looked away. “My father drowned in the lake. I saw it happen. It happened a long time ago.”
“Oh!” She reached out for him, clasping his hands together with hers. “I’m so sorry, Dane.”
“We were night fishing,” he went on, leaving his hands in hers. “He was drunk, as usual. He had on those rubber boots that fishermen wear, you know the kind?”
“He tipped the boat over, staggering around like a fool. We both went into the lake. His boots filled up with water, and he sank to the bottom. I didn’t know what to do, and I was never much of a swimmer. He wasn’t found until four days later, standing on the bottom of the lake, his eyes still open, his arms outstretched as if pleading for help. I was there when they found him. I’ll never forget it.”
“Oh, God, how terrible! How did you get out of the water?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “The only thing I remember is falling in the water. Then I woke up here. I went back to the lake and got there just as they were pulling him out. It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
“Do you think it’s possible, the reason for our connection, I mean? That we both had the same experience in the same place?”
“I think anything is possible.”
“My God,” she whispered as she lay back on the rug. “This is amazing.”
He leaned down and kissed her. “I think this is amazing.”
“It certainly is,” she agreed. “It’s so amazing that you have to keep doing it.“′
“I think I can oblige,” he grinned, then kissed her again.
# # #
The sun was rising as Dane walked her back to her camp. She hoped to get back earlier and began to feel a little trepidation at the thought of her mom or dad having awakened and found her gone
“I’ll look for you later?” she asked him.
“I love you, Dane.”
“McKenna,” he touched her face. “I love you, too.”
“I’ll miss you. It’s going to feel like forever again, but I know it’s not. It’s just a few hours.”
“Who are you talking to, McKenna, and what in God’s name are you doing up at this hour?”
A cold hand squeezed McKenna’s guts, and she whirled around to face her mother.
She was coming out of the outhouse adjusting her pajamas.
“I...” she faltered. “I...”
“Didn’t you even change clothes before you went to bed? You must have been tired.” Her mother walked to the makeshift kitchen. “You want coffee?”
McKenna stared at her mother, her heart pounding loud in her ears. Her mind whirled, and she felt faint. “I’m sorry, Mother,” she stammered.
Her mother laughed. “You don’t have to be sorry, Honey. I don’t care if you rough it. But you might want to shower and put some fresh clothes on unless you plan on going to the beach. You never answered me about the coffee.”
McKenna’s heart fluttered in her chest as she stared at her mother. She couldn’t breathe. There was no way to explain this.
She turned around to look at Dane.
But he was gone.
Someone was tapping on her face. McKenna put her hands up to ward them off. They gently stroked her hair. She smiled, her eyes still closed. “I love you, Dane,” she whispered.
“Kenna, honey, wake up.”
Her eyes flew open.
Her dad smiled. “There you are. And I love you, too, sweetheart.”
“What happened, Kenna?”
Oh, thank God. He misunderstood her, thought she said, ‘I love you, Dad.’
McKenna struggled to sit up. She was lying on a picnic table, a folded blanket under her head. “I don’t know. I felt light-headed for a minute. I guess I passed out.”
“I guess you did.”
“Maybe we should take her home,” her mother appeared over her father’s shoulder.
“No!” McKenna cried. “I’m fine. I don’t want to go home!”
“She’s fine,” he agreed. “Besides, you just took her to the doctor, and she said everything looks good. There won’t be anyone in until Monday, and I can’t see wasting our weekend for another visit that we don’t need.”
He turned to his daughter. “Kenna, honey, I want you to have some coffee and a bit of breakfast. That will help you to feel better. Then your mom and I want to talk with you. Okay?”
No! she wanted to scream. She didn’t want to talk. She was so tired. She wanted to crawl inside her tent and sleep until Dane came to wake her.
The coffee helped. McKenna was on the second cup when her mother put a breakfast plate in front of her.
“Smells good, Mom. I didn’t think I was hungry, but now I’m famished.” She was famished. She ate most of the food on her plate and drank two more cups of coffee. Once she finished, she pushed the plate away and sat back. She was ready for the talk. About as ready as she was ever going to be.
She sat facing her mother and father. They studied her, and it made her uncomfortable. She had to say something. “So?” she asked. “What did you want to talk about?”
Her father spoke first. “We have something to tell you, Kenna. Something that we have kept from you all of your life.”
“We didn’t want to,” her mother interrupted, “but we, or I, thought it best. I fought your father every step of the way.”
Her father took a deep breath. “Now I wonder if we did the right thing.”
Her mother placed a hand on his arm. “Conner, do you want me to?”
He shook his head. “No, absolutely not. It was all my fault. I should be the one to tell her.”
“Tell me what?” McKenna grew impatient. She needed to sleep. She didn’t know how much longer she could keep her eyes open.
“I was going to tell you something the last time we were here. Do you remember?”
She nodded. “You told me that Mom had to be present any time you shared memories with me.”
“Yes, that’s right. Well, what we’ve been afraid to tell you is about something that happened here, at the lake, when you were just a toddler.” Conner began.
“You were only three years old,” her mother interrupted again.
“Yes,” he agreed, then told her about the boating accident.
“I fell in the lake?” McKenna lowered her head and stared at her hands.
“That’s all you wanted to tell me?” She raised her eyes and kept her face guarded. “That I fell in the lake? That’s no big deal, you guys. How did I get out?”
“I jumped in after you,” he continued. “I must have searched, God, I don’t know how long. I kept diving down looking for you. It was dark out, the water was murky, even with a flashlight. I couldn’t find you.”
McKenna felt sorry for him. She wanted to stop him and tell them she already knew.
“I managed to get back in the boat and row to shore. I called 911, and paramedics came with frogmen and the equipment to drag the lake. McKenna, they dragged that lake for more than four hours, and you were nowhere to be found.”
Her father heaved a heavy sigh. “They gave you up for dead. They assumed that you’d been caught on a branch and dragged down. I was so angry. How could they give up like that? How could they just walk away and go home to their families when my baby was missing?” His face grew red with anger, and Sarah once again placed a hand on his arm.
“Don’t, Connor,” she said softly.
He nodded. “I’m okay,” he said, holding a hand up. “I just need to finish this now.” He turned back to McKenna. “Well, we found you the next day on the little beach by the old cemetery. Do you know where I’m talking about?”
“On the other side of the lake,” she said. “How did I get there?”
“We don’t know. We just kept praying for a miracle, hoping we’d find you. I can’t believe we did.”
“Is that why I’m afraid of water?” McKenna asked.
“Probably,” he said. “Even though you were so young, I’m sure it affected you.”
“Is that why you and mom have hated each other for so long?”
Her parents glanced at each other.
“Sarah,” he said softly. She looked up at him. “Should I go on?”
“Finish it,” she answered. “We agreed, so finish it.”
Conner’s breath shook as he continued.
“Once we got you home from the hospital, you seemed fine. You were back to your normal, happy self. But there was something different about you. We couldn’t put our finger on it. Of course, you weren’t able to explain things, so when you tried to tell us, we didn’t understand.’
“We thought you created an invisible friend. We heard so much about that from other parents. You were always in a conversation with someone. You would talk, then you would listen. Your head would tilt like they were speaking to you. Then you would react. Sometimes, you would laugh and clap your hands, sometimes you would answer them.”
The goosebumps broke out on her arms.
“We were at our wit’s end, McKenna.” Sarah interrupted him. “You were going to be starting school soon. We didn’t know if it would affect your developmental abilities or stop you from making friends.”
McKenna felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
“Please understand,” she said. “We were becoming afraid of you.”
“What?” McKenna’s face went white.
“We weren’t afraid of her, Sarah,” Conner frowned. “We just didn’t understand. We took you to several doctors, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with you, and they suggested a psychiatrist. We thought that was foolish, but we did it anyway. All they wanted to do was experiment on you with one medication after another. When we’d had enough of that, we stopped taking you.”
“I was afraid for you to start kindergarten,” Sarah said. “But it turned out to be somewhat of a miracle. That’s where you met Kelly. The two of you became instant friends. You seemed to stop talking to people that weren’t there. So, whenever Kelly’s mother asked if you could spend the night, I agreed.”
“We needed help,” her father interjected. “We accepted help where it was offered.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” McKenna’s face was a mass of confusion. Things were coming at her very fast.
“It seems,” her mother said. “That you never stopped talking to people that weren’t there. You did it at Kelly’s house, too. If it wasn’t for Kelly’s mom being spiritual, I don’t know what she would have done. One day, when I went to pick you up, she asked me to come in for coffee. That’s when she explained to me that you were talking to her mother. She suggested we take you to a parapsychologist.
“A what? What is that?” McKenna’s heart pounded in her chest. Fear grew in her. She didn’t want to hear anymore.
“A parapsychologist is someone who studies the paranormal,” Conner explained, his forehead creased.
McKenna was confused. “Paranormal? What does the paranormal have to do with me? And how would my falling in the lake make me see things? I don’t understand.”
Conner looked to Sarah for support.
She nodded at him.
“Because you died, McKenna.”
“No, I didn’t,” she insisted. “I’m still here, alive and well.” She was starting to panic.
“I said we found you on the beach.”
“What’s the difference?”
“After we found you, we took you to the hospital. They pronounced you dead on arrival.” Connor was crying now. “Your poor little body was so limp. Your eyes were open, staring at nothing.”
“Connor,” Sarah said. “Don’t. Just tell her.”
He nodded. “We don’t know how or why, but you came back. Your mother was holding you in her arms. Your face scrunched up. You blinked your eyes, then started to cry. It was a miracle.”
“But what about the rest, Dad?” McKenna was crying with him. “What about the paranormal thing?”
“We don’t know. The parapsychologist believes that you see people who have passed on since you died and came back. They come to you, sometimes to ask for help, sometimes just to help you.”
“That’s crazy!” she cried. “I don’t see any ghosts.”
“McKenna,” Sarah interrupted, speaking quietly. “You have never met your grandparents.”
“What?” The shock coursed through her at her mother’s statement and made her feel faint.
“Your grandmother and grandfather died before you were born. You’ve never met them.”
“But--” she sputtered. “They live with us. I talk to them all the time.”
“We know you see them and talk to them. But your grandparents died a long time ago.”
“That’s not possible! I talk to them. They talk to me. They hug me and kiss me. They...” her voice trailed off. She burst into heaving sobs. “It can’t be true. I love them so much. They have to be real. They just have to be.”
“They are real, Honey,” Connor reached out a hand to touch her.
“Don’t!” she shrieked. “Don’t you touch me! You should have told me a long time ago! How am I supposed to live with this now?”
“We wanted to tell you, sweetheart, but we didn’t want you to see yourself as different. We wanted you to have a normal childhood.”
“I’m a freak!” she cried. Suddenly a thought struck her. “Who else knows?”
Connor lowered his head. “Kelly has always known. She protected you in school.”
“My best friend is keeping this from me. My best friend is stabbing me in the back?” McKenna could no longer control her anger.
She rose from the picnic table and glared at them. “I hate you both!” she screamed. “I never want to see you again!”
She bolted from the table.
She ran without stopping. Having no idea where she was going. Only needing to get away from them. She was a freak that talked to dead people—a monster who had no loving grandparents at all, only ghosts that haunted her.
She reached the lake out of breath and stared at the water. Why not? The thought was barely there, but it was enough.
Slipping off her sandals, she slowly approached the water’s edge. Why not? She thought to herself. She had already died once. Died, drowned, dead as a doornail. Maybe she could do it again. Perhaps if she drowned again, it would stop the dead from haunting her. Or maybe she would just die herself. Then it would all be over.
She took a step into the water. It was cool on her feet. She took another step, she shivered. She took another step, unafraid. That was good. No fear. Just keep going.
She was up to her waist now. Still unafraid. She kept going.
The water was up to her chest. It was getting colder the deeper she went.
McKenna didn’t look back. She didn’t want to see her father standing on the shore. This was something she had to do, and he was not going to stop her.
“Kenna! Come back!”
She ignored him.
“Kenna, please! You don’t know how to swim!”
And who’s fault is that? She thought, refusing to listen to him.
Slowly, the water covered her shoulders, then her neck. She was up to her chin. She wasn’t afraid anymore. She sank to her knees, feeling the sand at the bottom of the lake scratch them.
The water covered her head, and she gave herself entirely to it. She opened her mouth and inhaled deeply. Then she was gone.
She was drowning. But she was no longer a seventeen-year-old teenager.
She could look up and see her father leaning over the edge of the boat, staring into the water and calling her name. She waited for him to jump into the water like he said he had, but he never did. He stayed in the boat and continued to call her name. He did this for a very long time. She waited and waited, but he never jumped into the water to save her.
The bottom of the boat vanished from sight as she descended. The seaweed clawed at her legs, pulling her deeper into the cold depths. She opened her mouth to scream but instead inhaled a mouthful of water.
She started to cry, watching as the bubbles from her mouth and nose floated to the surface. She hoped her father would see them and be able to find her. Then he could rescue her.
She waved her hands in the water to try and get his attention. It did no good. The pressure of the water kept her from waving with any strength. Her vision grew dark. In a few moments, she would die.
McKenna opened her eyes to see a pair of very blue ones staring back at her. She coughed, and the water that had been in her lungs poured out of her. She coughed again.
“What are you trying to do?”
He was angry.
McKenna sat up, her eyes roaming around the little beach beside the cemetery. The one where her parents found her. The one where she drowned as a child.
“How did I get here?”
“How do you think?” he asked.
“Please don’t do that, Dane.”
“Answer all of my questions with a question.”
He ran his hands through his hair and sighed exasperatedly. “I asked first,” he said quickly. “What are you trying to do?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m just so confused right now. My parents told me some things that happened after I died as a toddler, you know when I drowned here.”
“You didn’t die,” he said.
“That’s what I thought. But they told me after you brought me back to camp,” she hesitated. “How did you disappear so fast, anyway?”
“Don’t change the subject,” he said adamantly.
She shook her head. “Dane, I don’t know if you’ll even want me after I tell you what they told me.”
Dane stared at her through slatted eyes. “Don’t talk crazy.”
“That’s what I mean. I am crazy.”
His laugh got the better of him. “I’m sorry,” he apologized quickly. “I didn’t mean to laugh. You’re not crazy, and you know it.”
“Then how come I can talk to dead people?”
“What?” Dane’s eyes turned a deeper shade of blue, the pupils dilating to large orbs.
“It’s true. My mother and father told me. They told me it happened after I died and came back to life. They told me that I have never met my grandparents. That they died before I was born. But yet I see them and talk to them every day. If that isn’t crazy, I don’t know what is.”
“I told you that you were special,” he said, jumping quickly to his feet and offering her a hand. “You’re very tired, McKenna. Let’s go back to the cabin and get some sleep. You’ll feel better afterward.”
“I hope you’re right.”
He smiled sadly. “It can’t hurt.”
McKenna woke to a dark cabin. The fire that Dane built earlier had gone out. Only tiny embers remained smoldering in the fireplace.
She sat up and surveyed the room. She was alone. Where was he? Why did he leave? And why, oh why, did he keep disappearing?
She heard someone approaching. Her first thought was Dane, but as they drew closer, she could make out more than one set of footsteps. She threw on her clothes and ran her fingers through her tangled hair.
The cabin door opened, and her father walked in. “Kenna,” he sighed with relief. “We have been looking everywhere for you.”
“You left me to drown,” she stated emotionlessly. The memory returned to her, but she felt nothing. Her father was not the loving parent she knew. He was a selfish alcoholic that lied about saving her.
His eyes grew wide, but he didn’t deny it.
She didn’t answer. She had nothing more to say. She only stared as her mother walked in behind him.
“And, you,” she glared at her mother. “You probably knew all along. I hate you both for all of the lies. All of the secrets. You’ve ruined my life.”
At the sound of the door creaking open, McKenna looked to see two strange men approaching her. They were dressed in white uniforms. One of them had a stethoscope around his neck. The other had a hypodermic syringe in his hand.
“What’s going on?” she asked. Her heart sank. Where was Dane?
“We need to get you some help, Kenna.” Her father slowly approached her. “You tried to drown yourself. Mom and I are afraid for you.”
“Who are they?” she asked, her eyes glaring at the two men.
“We thought it best for you,” her mom said. “You need to be in a hospital.”
McKenna backed slowly away from her mom and dad and the two men. “I don’t need help,” she insisted. “I need Dane.” Her back touched the wall. “Dane!” she cried out.
The two men advanced on her.
“You’re not touching me with that thing!” she cried. “Dane!” Where was he? Why wasn’t he here?
The first man moved quickly toward her and grabbed her around the waist. Her arms flailed against him. “No!” she screamed. “Stop!”
The second man roughly seized her arm and plunged the needle into it.
McKenna screamed again. “Dane!”
Her legs started to sag. Her mind grew fuzzy.
They couldn’t take her away. She had to see Dane. He would never know where she had gone.
“Dane!” she cried again. “Dane!” Her voice grew weak as the medicine took effect. His name stayed on her lips, and she never stopped calling for him until she collapsed against the shoulder of her father.
She opened her eyes to the brightness of the room, then quickly closed them again. The lights hurt her eyes.
Slowly, she opened her eyes again. She squinted at the starkness of the white walls and the bright florescent lights that hummed overhead.
“How are you feeling, child?”
McKenna struggled to sit upright, but she couldn’t. Her hands were bound to the bed by straps. She let her head fall back onto the pillow in defeat.
“Go away,” she whispered. “You’re not real.”
“I am real,” Grandma said. “I was flesh and blood once, just like you. Now I’m a spirit, but I’m real. You can see me. You can talk to me. Not many others can do that.”
The tears slid down McKenna’s face, wetting the pillow beneath her head. “I have to get out of here,” she whispered.
“Baby, you need to get well.”
“I’m not sick.”
“You tried to drown yourself.”
“I did that because I need to stop talking to dead people, like you.”
Grandma shook her head. “Drowning yourself won’t do that, child. That will only get you dead.”
“Fine by me,” McKenna snapped, her eyes blazing into the old woman’s.
“And what about Dane?” Grandma asked.
McKenna’s heart dropped to her stomach. She started to cry.
“I don’t think you want to die,” Grandma assured her. “You just had a lot of information dropped in your lap. I’m not sure your parents should have done that to you.”
McKenna shook her head on the pillow. “It doesn’t matter. They did it. Now I have to live with it.”
“Yes, you have to live with it, child, but you also have to learn how to accept it.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Very slowly and with time.”
“But I’m talking to dead people. How do I know when they are dead or alive? Is that why Kelly was assigned to be my protector? So that I wouldn’t be caught talking to someone that wasn’t there?”
“That was one of the reasons.”
“What are the other ones.”
“I don’t know.”
“So, answer the other question. How do I know if people are alive or dead?”
Grandma shook her head. “I don’t know that either, child.”
“God,” McKenna sobbed. “What am I supposed to do?”
“In time, you’ll know. As you grow into this gift, you’ll learn.”
“Yes, child, it’s a gift.”
“I don’t see it that way,” McKenna hissed. “It’s a curse. A curse I have to live with until the day I die. Oh, God,” she sobbed again.
“McKenna, honey,” Grandma touched her hair, but McKenna flinched away from her. “Soon, you will learn why you have this gift. Once you understand it, you’ll realize it was never a curse, but a blessing.”
“Go away!” McKenna turned her head to scream at her grandmother.
But her grandmother had disappeared.
“I can loosen those straps for you if you promise to behave.”
McKenna turned her head toward the voice. The nurse that entered the room was young and pretty, with dark chestnut hair and brown eyes. The many keys she held on her key ring jangled against each other.
“How can I misbehave?” McKenna asked sarcastically. “I’m locked in a room.”
The nurse ignored the remark and started to unlock the straps that held McKenna hostage. Her hands were cold as they touched McKenna’s skin. On her wrist, she wore a charm bracelet that jingled with her movements.
Once the restraints were off, McKenna rubbed her wrists where her skin was tender and red. “I want to see my parents,” she demanded.
Once again, the nurse ignored her. Her anger grew inside her. Why wouldn’t she answer her?
“Did you hear me?” she glanced at the name tag the nurse wore. “Susan? I want to see my parents! I want to know why I’m in here!”
Finally, the nurse responded. “Your doctor will be in shortly. He’ll be able to answer all of your questions.” Without another word, Susan unlocked the door and left the room. McKenna could hear the clang of the keys as she locked the door behind her.
The rage filled her. She jumped out of bed, ran to the door, and started to beat at the small window. “Let me out of here!” she screamed. “I don’t belong here! I need to see my parents! Where are my parents? Let me out of here, you hear me? Let me out!”
The anger and rage she vented on the door finally exhausted her. She slid to the cold tile floor, shaking with her sobs.
Her mind tortured her with thoughts of Dane. She wondered where he had gone. And with more thoughts of her parents. How did they find her? Why would they put her in this place?
Where were they, and why were they not here? How could they just leave her here? Left alone, McKenna stayed where she was on the floor and let the loneliness and fear take over.
“You have to stop this child.”
“Oh, Grandma,” she sobbed. “Just go away. You can’t help me.”
Grandma sat down on the edge of the bed. “Come here, child.”
McKenna shook her head. “You’re not real.”
“But I am real, McKenna.” Grandma left the bed and walked over to her, the old hands reaching out. “Come here. Let me help you.”
Still sobbing, McKenna grasped her grandmother’s hands and rose from the floor. She fell into her grandmother’s arms, weeping uncontrollably. “I’m glad you came, Grandma,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean what I said. Oh, I know you’re just a ghost, but I needed you so bad.”
Her grandmother stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. “I’m here, child, and I always will be.”
“Thank you, Grandma. I’m sorry I was so mean to you.”
Her grandmother sighed. “You were upset.”
The sound of keys in the lock once again made McKenna’s heart jump in her chest. “Grandma, someone’s coming.”
“It’s alright, child. This isn’t a regular hospital, you know. It is a special place. These people know about you.”
“A special place?”
“Yes, for people like you. People that see ghosts.” She leaned toward McKenna and grinned when she said the word ghosts.
“But what about you?”
“They can’t see me, McKenna.”
McKenna accepted her answer and waited for the door to open. She had no idea who was going to emerge, but she stayed in her grandmother’s arms and held her breath.
# # #
“Good morning, McKenna.” The doctor smiled at her, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “I’m Doctor Olsen. It’s nice to meet you.”
Nice for who? McKenna wanted to shout. Instead, she said nothing.
He had a clipboard tucked under his arm and a pen stuck out of his breast pocket.
“I’ll be your physician while you’re here.”
She didn’t answer, only snuggled closer into her grandmother’s bosom.
Dr. Olsen pulled the pen from his pocket, the click loud in the quiet room. “Is someone here?” he inquired.
“My grandmother,” she whispered, settling deeper into her warmth.
He nodded and made a note on his clipboard. “McKenna, I’m not here to tell you that you’re crazy. I’m not going to tell you that your grandmother isn’t here. See, I’m a different kind of doctor. I’m a parapsychologist. I study and believe in the paranormal. Things like telepathy, telekinesis, and the ability to see spirits. I know your grandmother is here.”
McKenna’s eyes widened. “You do?”
He smiled. “I know because you told me. I can’t see her. I don’t have that ability. But I know that you do. And that you came by this ability after you had a drowning accident. Most people come back from an NDE with certain paranormal capabilities.”
“Why am I here?” she asked.
He pulled up a stool that had been in the corner of the room. “You’re here, McKenna because you tried to drown yourself after your parents told you about your ability. I must admit the way they went about it was very unwise. It traumatized you. You’re here now because of that. I’m here to help guide you through the process of understanding it and accepting it.”
“When can I go home?”
“That all depends on you,” he answered.
“On me? Why?”
“Because there are a lot of people out there that love you and want to make sure you never try to harm yourself again. Living and dead,” he added.
“But I have to get out of here,” she said, the anxiety rising in her. “There’s someone I have to see. Dane has to know what happened to me!”
“Dane’s a boyfriend?”
“Yes, don’t you see? He doesn’t know where I am. He’ll be worried. I need to see him.” She started to cry again, and her grandmother held her tighter. “I love him,” she cried weakly. “I need him.”
“McKenna,” Doctor Olsen set his clipboard aside and took her hands in his. “Believe it or not, I completely understand. But what you need to understand is that you come first, before any boyfriend, before your parents.” He let his hand gesture around the room. “And before any grandparents. I’m very sorry.”
“When can I see my parents?”
“You can’t. There won’t be any visitors allowed in here. Well,” he smiled. “except for the spirits. I can’t lock them out.” He stood suddenly, pulling the ring of keys from his pocket. “Your breakfast should be here any minute, McKenna. I’m sorry it will be a standard breakfast because you weren’t here to place your order. Either way, it will be good.” He turned and left the room.
The breakfast that came on her tray looked delicious. The scrambled eggs and bacon smelled heavenly. McKenna had no appetite and only gnawed on a piece of toast.
She lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Her thoughts of Dane occupied her mind. She missed his kisses and his arms about her. She wondered again why he wasn’t at the cabin when her parents let those men stick a needle in her and take her prisoner.
Her grandmother left, so she was alone. In a way, she was glad. She needed to be alone with her thoughts.
Remembering what the doctor said, she had to come first, take care of herself first, and accept that she could communicate with the dead was her top priority. So now she knew what she had to do. She had to convince them that she did.
So, how could she do that? And how long would that take? Too long, she answered herself. Way too long. She needed to get out of here, and she needed to get out now. She didn’t have time to be coy or play their games. And she was never one to be able to do that.
McKenna turned on her side and fluffed the pillow, never so afraid before. The hate she felt toward her parents left a bitter taste in her mouth. Once upon a time, she loved them deeply. But those days were over.
After all of the lies, the secrets, her father’s betrayal, it was enough to make McKenna sick. Physically sick, in her heart and her soul.
Another thought struck her. How far away from Mosquito Lake was she? She wouldn’t get far walking. She had no clothes, only the institution’s white pajamas and the white socks that covered her feet. She had no shoes.
She felt utterly helpless.
A light tapping distracted her thoughts for a moment. Ignoring it, she buried her face in the pillow.
She wanted Dane. She missed him badly. Would he even know where she was?
The tapping distracted her again. She covered her ears and sobbed into the pillow. Tap. Tap. Tap.
McKenna lifted her head and looked around her room. There was nothing there to make the tapping sound. The tapping turned into a quick knock.
She turned her head toward the window.
Kelly stood there along with Raven and Layla. They were jumping up and down excitedly outside. They had her gifts from her birthday party and were waving them at her.
McKenna crawled out of bed and ran to the window. “Hey!” she cried. “How did you find me?”
“Just a little bit of detective work,” Kelly shouted through the glass. “And your mother just loves me to death! I didn’t know she was such a pushover! She gave up all the information for us to find you. Except for your room number. We had to do a bit of sleuthing to find the right room.”
“We had to play peeping Tom. We looked in every window until we found you.”
McKenna laughed out loud. It felt good. She loved her friends and didn’t realize how much she missed them until this moment.
“What are you doing with my presents?”
“We were going to come and do your hair and makeup and cheer you up a bit, but they won’t let us in! What’s up with that?”
“They won’t let anyone in. Not even my parents,” she told them. “They told me that I had to take care of myself first. I’m so scared, Kelly.”
“I can’t even imagine. How long do you think you’ll have to stay here?′
McKenna shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you know why my parents put me in here?”
“They’re afraid, Kenny. They’re afraid of what they don’t understand.”
“You’re not afraid, Kel?”
Kelly shook her head. “Not at all. I studied up.” She took a deep breath. “McKenna, I’m so sorry for not telling you myself. I wanted to, believe me, I did, but your folks wouldn’t let me. Please, forgive me.”
“It’s okay, Kel. I think I get it. But I have to stay here until I can accept and learn how to control this gift. Yea, they call it a gift. I call it a curse.” She hesitated for a split second, then asked, “Kelly, Dane doesn’t know where I am. Can you please, please go to the lake and let him know where I’m at?”
“Dane?” Kelly asked. “Is that the guy you met on the beach?”
“Yes! Please do me this one favor, and I’ll love you forever!”
Kelly laughed. “You’ll love me forever anyway, girlfriend. But, yea, we’ll take a ride out there and see if we can find him.”
“Thank you!” she whispered gratefully. “There’s a little cabin off that path we took to go to the old cemetery. That’s where we would go. He might be there if he’s not on the beach.”
“McKenna, what does this guy do other than walk on the beach?” Kelly asked concern showing on her face.
“It doesn’t matter right now. Please just find Dane and let him know why I’m not there. Tell him I love him. Tell him I’ll be with him as soon as I can.”
“Aye, Aye, Captain,” she said, giving McKenna a mock salute. “And that’s a big ten-four. Hang on a sec.”
The girls turned their backs on her and seemed to be rubbing their faces.
Puzzled, McKenna asked, “What are you guys doing now?”
All three girls turned back to the window and grinned widely at McKenna. They painted their lips with deep red lipstick. They pressed their red lips up against the window. The red stain stayed on the window when they pulled away.
“These are for you, girlfriend,” Kelly said. “Don’t let this get you down.”
“Kisses for you, McKenna,” Raven told her. “Just to let you know, we will never leave you, no matter what you’re going through.”
“And,” Layla added, “we’ll do your hair and makeup when you get out of here!”
She heard the key in the lock and jumped back into the bed. The girls fled from the window, but their lipstick marks were still there. McKenna hoped that whoever was coming in wouldn’t see them. As long as those red kisses stayed on the window, McKenna felt hope in her heart.
Dr. Olsen peaked his head into the room. “Oh, good, you’re awake.” He pushed the door open all the way and entered the room. “I was hoping you were. Are you ready to go for a walk?”
“A walk?” she echoed.
“Sure,” he answered. “It will get you out of this room. I want to run some tests if that’s alright with you.”
“Test?” she repeated.
“Yes, tests,” Dr. Olsen answered. “Nothing too invasive, McKenna, I assure you. I just want to talk with you, have you answer some questions. Nothing that will hurt you, I promise.”
“What if I say no?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s not go there, okay? Let’s just take a walk.”
She shrugged, got out of bed, and followed Dr. Olsen from the room.
Very few windows lined the hall, and the walls were a stark white. McKenna tried to catch a glimpse of the outside as she followed Dr. Olsen to his office. The location was important to her. How would she ever escape if she didn’t know where she was?
When he stopped at the door, he pulled a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked it. He opened it and nodded for her to enter, locking the door behind him.
McKenna wondered why so many locked doors, so many keys.
The room was not an ordinary examination room. This room was more like an office. On one wall was a couch, large and fat, and looked very comfortable. In the center of the room was the doctor’s desk with a chair. Two overstuffed chairs were sitting beside each other in front of the desk.
The doctor eased into the chair behind the desk and motioned for her to sit down. “Please,” he said. “Have a seat, McKenna.”
McKenna sat down slowly in one of the chairs. She felt breathless as if someone was sitting on her chest. “When will I be able to see my parents?” she asked immediately.
Even though they put her in here, the little girl in McKenna still missed them and wanted to see them. She felt alone and afraid in this place.
“Not right now, McKenna,” he said as he shuffled papers on his desk. “I want to ask you a few questions about how your ability started.”
“But you already know.”
“Yes, but I want to hear it again, and I want to hear it from you. If you don’t mind, I would like to video your statement.”
McKenna stayed silent. She knew it didn’t matter if she gave her permission or not. He was going to video her either way.
Dr. Olsen reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a stethoscope, a blood pressure machine, and a syringe. The syringe had a clear liquid in it.
McKenna stood up suddenly. “No!” she cried out. “You’re not sticking me with that!”
“It’s alright, McKenna,” he said as he stood up and walked cautiously around his desk. “It’s only a small dose of sodium pentothal.”
“I don’t know what that is! Why are you doing this?”
“It’s alright,” he said again as he placed an outstretched hand on her shoulder and led her to the couch. “This won’t hurt you. I’m going to monitor your heartbeat and blood pressure. The sodium pentothal will help you relax and help with your memory. I’ll ask you some questions, and you’ll be able to answer them better.”
“What if I don’t want to remember?” she howled.
“Please, McKenna, just lay back and relax,” Dr. Olsen urged. “You keep fighting this. You have an ability that you don’t understand. You need to be able to accept it to be able to live a normal life.”
The blood pressure cuff tightened painfully on her arm as the doctor kept talking. The needle stung as it pierced her skin, and she flinched. The liquid that flowed into her vein was cold. It made her shiver.
Slowly, the room started to change. It wavered back and forth. McKenna felt as if she were floating in warm water. She relaxed and closed her eyes. She could hear Dr. Olsen’s voice as if he spoke from a great distance.
“Where are you now, McKenna?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. Relax. Let your mind wander. Follow the memories.”
“Yes, I know where I am.”
“Tell me where you are.”
Suddenly, the warm water turned cold. McKenna found herself sinking. The water invaded her lungs, and she felt the vomit rising in her throat. It mixed with the water in her lungs, choking her. Her vision grew dark.
“Yes, you’re drowning. But the water can’t hurt you, McKenna. You’re safe.”
She was vaguely aware of hands grabbing at her. Her first instinct was to fight them, but they were pulling her to the surface. Suddenly she was out of the water. She felt sand beneath her and the bright sun in her eyes. Warm lips covered hers, breathing life-giving oxygen into her. She was forced to breathe independently, and she coughed, the water gushing out of her mouth. She coughed several more times, then opened her eyes.
“I think you’ll be alright now.” A pair of blue eyes peered back at her.
She started to cry. “Momma! Daddy!”
“They’ll be here soon,” he said, then he rose from the ground.
Three-year-old McKenna watched him slowly disappear into the cemetery next door, then she lay back on the sand and cried until she fell asleep from exhaustion.
# # #
McKenna came back to the present and opened her eyes.
Her clothes were dry, and the blue eyes were gone.
She sat up slowly and glanced around the room. Dr. Olsen sat across from her and was studying her. She was no longer on the beach. It wasn’t the blue eyes that gazed at her now. It was Dr. Olsen’s brown ones.
She started to cry.
Laying in her bed after her session with Dr. Olsen, she tried to remember the face that saved her when she drowned. It was only the eyes that kept coming back to her—nothing else.
Who had it been? It wasn’t her dad. He never jumped in the water to save her. That was a lie.
Her dad had once been her hero. But he left her to drown.
Now, he wasn’t.
A tear slid down her cheek.
How was she supposed to live with this?
McKenna didn’t want to think anymore. It was too painful. She rolled onto her side and fell asleep dreaming of blue eyes, and the blue eyes kept turning into Dane.
The tapping on the window woke her. This time Kelly was by herself. McKenna jumped from the bed and ran to the window. “Hey!” she cried. “I’m so glad to see you, Kel. I miss you! Where’s Raven and Layla?”
Kelly shrugged. “I didn’t tell them I was coming. They get on my nerves sometimes.”
“I know what you mean, but I still love them.”
“Yea, me too. So,” she moved closer to the window. “I did what you asked, Kenny. I went to the lake. I found the cabin.”
“Oh, thank God. Thank you so much. Did you find Dane?”
“It was the strangest thing. The oil lamps were lit like you said they would be, and a fire was in the fireplace, but Dane wasn’t there. I looked everywhere. The cabin, the beach, even our campsite, but he wasn’t anywhere.”
“But the lamps were lit and a fire in the fireplace? Oh Kel, he was waiting for me! Now he’s probably wondering why I didn’t show up. How am I supposed to let him know?”
“I don’t know, Kenny, maybe -” she started to say, then halted.
“What if -” Kelly stopped again and shook her head. “Never mind. It was just a thought.”
Turning from the window in defeat, she said, “I’m trapped in here. I’ll never see him again.”
Kelly tapped on the window. “Kenny, don’t. Come back to the window. I can’t hear you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she around. “It just doesn’t matter anymore. Thank you for trying, Kel. You don’t have to worry about it anymore. I appreciate you trying.”
McKenna walked back to the bed; her shoulders slumped in defeat. She was at a complete loss. How was she supposed to get out of here?
For two days, she was left alone. The only people she saw were the ones that brought her food trays. Kelly didn’t come back. Even her grandparents didn’t visit her. She started to grow lonely and was almost happy to see Dr. Olsen when he came into the room and announced he wanted to try another test.
She followed him to his office, sat down in the chair facing him, and waited for him to speak.
“I’m sorry about the last session, McKenna,” he finally said. “I had no idea it would impact you that way. I’m sure it’s hard on you, but I would like to try again.”
McKenna said nothing. She didn’t care what they did to her now.
Once again, she was hooked up to the blood pressure machine, the cuff painfully squeezing her arm as the doctor plunged the needle into her vein. As the sodium pentothal flowed into her, he fitted an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose.
One more time, the room wavered. The warm water McKenna floated in turned cold, filling her lungs. She sank to the bottom. Looking up, she could see the bottom of the boat and her father leaning over. She tried to call out to him but only inhaled more water. She waited to see when he would jump in and look for her like he said he had. But he stayed in the boat, watching her sink. She waited for him until the darkness swallowed her.
Once again, she woke up to the blue eyes. The gentle words. The shadow of someone walking toward the cemetery. But that was all.
For the next three days, McKenna turned her meal trays away. She had no appetite. The smell of food made her sick. She spent her time in deep slumber, sometimes only waking long enough to cry over Dane. She didn’t understand what was happening to her. Why were the memories she kept hidden deep inside coming out only when Dr. Olsen injected her with the drug?
“How’s my girl?”
“Grandpa!” she cried, jumping off the bed and flying into his arms.
“Hello, Sweetheart.” He kissed the top of her head. “Not doing so good, are you?”
“I hate this place. They keep putting me under a microscope. I feel like a bug they’re studying.”
“That’s not good. Your mother and father should be horsewhipped.”
“My mother and father,” she hmphed. “How could they do this to me? Why the things I’m remembering, Grandpa…” her voice trailed off.
“Sit down.” He sat down on the bed and patted a space beside him.
She sat down, and he put his arm around her.
“I miss you and Grandma so much,” she whispered.
“And we miss you, too. Why Grandma doesn’t have anyone to scold about slamming doors without you there.”
McKenna gave a short laugh. “Grandpa, I need to talk about something, or I’m going to explode.”
“That sounds serious.” He pulled back and studied her.
“It is.” She took a breath and said, “My father left me to drown.”
“McKenna,” he said, then hesitated. He opened his mouth several times to speak but then closed it again as if he couldn’t find the right words. Finally, he rubbed his chin, opened his mouth, and said, “I know.”
He nodded. “Grandma and I both know. Of course, you understand this happened long after Grandma and I passed on. We wanted to help you. We wondered if the reason we were still here was to protect you somehow, but we had no idea how we could. We were afraid for you once the lies started.”
“But why would he lie? How could he?”
“I don’t like saying this, but your father was a drunk, Sweetheart. He took you out in that boat when he was intoxicated. When you fell in, he didn’t jump in after you because he knew he would drown, too.”
“But why would he lie to me all this time?”
Her grandfather reached out and took her hand. “Because he’s also a coward.”
“I always thought my father was a knight in shining armor,” she whispered.
“Most little girls do.” He wrapped her in his arms again.
“But this is different. My father was my knight in shining armor. He was always there for me. He -he -he” she couldn’t finish. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she sobbed against his chest. “He left me to die.”
“I’m sorry, Sweetheart,” Her grandfather whispered against her hair. “But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. I think you’ll be learning a lot more soon.”
“Why do I have to wait? Why can’t you tell me, Grandpa?”
“Because it’s not my place, McKenna. This is something that has to come from your parents.”
“When I get out of here, I never want to see them again.”
“Well, you might just have to see them again. Where do you think you’ll go other than home? Do you have somewhere else to go?”
“I’ll go to Dane. He loves me, Grandpa. He promised to always be there for me.”
“Oh, dear,” he said almost to himself. “I didn’t know it would come to this.” Then he looked at her and said, “I’m sure he loves you, McKenna. But can he take care of you?”
“And why couldn’t he? He says he will always be there for me. I don’t need my mother or father. I’m not going home. When I get out of here, I’m going to the cabin to be with Dane. And no one is going to stop me.”
Her grandfather slowly shook his head as he stared at the floor. “Grandma, what have we done,” he whispered.
“What did you say, Grandpa?”
“Nothing.” He lifted his head and gave her half a smile. “I’m just an old man talking to myself.”
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” she said, changing the subject.
“And what’s that?”
“I don’t know how I ended up on the beach. And there was someone there, Grandpa. Someone that saved my life. I don’t know who it was, but they had blue eyes. That’s all I can remember. Blue eyes.”
“I’m surprised you remember that much.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” he said again.
“Well, the longer I’m here, the more I’m going to remember. The doctor injects me with this stuff, and it helps me to remember.”
He sighed. “Well, then I guess you’ll be remembering everything soon.”
McKenna smiled for the first time in days. “Yes!” she said. “I’m going to remember everything, and then I’m going to find a way out of here.”
# # #
This time she got to lay on the couch. The doctor wrapped her arm in the blood pressure cuff—placed the oxygen mask over her face and injected the needle into her vein.
Once again, the warm water turned cold, and she was drowning. She could see her father leaning over the side of the boat. She heard voices--angry voices.
She only caught bits and pieces. It as if she was listening with a walkie talking with lousy reception.
“Why ………… do that?”
“Keep it up, …… bitch, and ……….. next! How many ………. I told you I ……….kid? We …. happy ………….. two………. I was ………glad ……….. sterile. But you ………………….. alone, could you?”
McKenna sank deeper into the water. The voices disappeared. Then she felt the hands pull her up and out of the lake. Suddenly the warm sand was beneath her. The breath flowed into her lungs. She coughed and threw up the water.
She opened her eyes, the bright sun assaulting her vision. The blue eyes gazed back at her. This time, though, she could see flaxen hair and cupid’s bow lips.
She started to cry. “Momma! Daddy!”
“I think you’ll be alright now.” The voice was gentle. He rose, and she watched him walked toward the cemetery.
# # #
McKenna opened her eyes. She sat up slowly and turned to look at Dr. Olsen.
He had been watching her closely.
“How are you feeling, McKenna?”
“I don’t know. I’m confused.”
“And why do you feel confused?”
“It’s just that--I think my father tried to kill me.”
“Any ideas what you’ll do once you’re released, McKenna?”
She was sitting in the chair across from Dr. Olsen’s desk. The session once again proved uneventful. Her memories went no farther than the blue eyes and flaxen hair. And the angry voices.
“Ideas?” she echoed. “Oh God, no. I don’t have any ideas. I won’t be eighteen for another six months. If I’m released before then, I’ll have to go home. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to see my parents. They’ll just tell me more of their lies.” She shrugged. “What I want to do is go back to the cabin and find Dane.”
“That wouldn’t be a wise decision.”
“I guess not,” she said.
Over the past four months, she grew to accept the situation. She wasn’t happy with it, and she cried for Dane every night for the longest time. But lately, her tears had stopped, but not because she didn’t love him anymore. “What else could I do?”
Dr. Olsen sat up straighter in his chair. “We still have some work to do on your memory, so you’ll be here a bit longer. I’ve been doing some thinking, and I checked into a few things that might help you. I have an idea if you’re open to it.”
“I’m open to just about anything these days.”
“How about a job?”
She scoffed. “Sure. How can I get a job when I’m stuck here?”
“I agree with you that going back to your parents is not a good idea, especially considering what might have happened to you. I still have hopes that you’ll eventually remember everything about the boating accident.”
McKenna said nothing and waited for him to go on.
“I want to make you an offer.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What kind of offer?”
“I think you would be good at working with people like yourself.”
“But how can I do that? I’m not a doctor,” she said. “What kind of help would I be?”
“No, you’re not a doctor. But you’ve learned so much about your condition. I wanted to offer you a position here at the institute, working with others like yourself. You won’t give medical advice, but you can listen and share your own experiences. You know for a fact that sometimes just a friendly ear helps.”
“You’ve come a long way these past four months, McKenna. Other than the one memory we can’t seem to get past, you’ve accepted your ability, and now you’re willing to understand it. You know how tragic it is to find out you have paranormal abilities.”
“The institute is always looking for counselors to help. Unfortunately, in this area, there isn’t much call for them. However, there have been times when a parent will bring their child in from another county or city. Sometimes, from another state. We seem to have more room here than in the larger cities.’
“That means we have more patients than counselors. That’s when we’re stretched too thin. I think a counselor with your experience would be a great asset.”
“But what about training?”
“There are courses online to obtain a degree, and you can start any training you need while you are a patient. You’ll have access to computers here, and it will be good for you. It will occupy your time while you’re learning. What do you think?”
McKenna hesitated, then she said, “I have one condition.”
Dr. Olsen smiled knowingly. “And what would that condition be?”
“I want to go back to Mosquito Lake.”
The campgrounds were empty, the lake quiet. An eerie foreboding surrounded the place. McKenna was used to lots of people and noise, campfires, and the smell of food cooking. Since it was mid-week, there was no one around. Since it was almost October, the lake would soon be deserted for winter.
She followed the path from the grounds into the woods. She didn’t know where she would find Dane or even if she would, and her heart throbbed painfully in her chest. Even with a flashlight, the woods were more menacing in the darkness, and she tripped several times over small rocks and tree roots.
Several times she called out his name. Her voice echoed in the darkness. The panic set in, and her tears flowed freely by the time she found the cabin. No oil lamps were lit, no fire burned in the fireplace. Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“Dane!” she cried. “Where are you, Dane!”
She didn’t receive an answer and sat down on the stoop at the front door. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed harder.
“Dane,” she whispered. “I thought you would be here. I need you so bad. Please, please come back to me.”
“I’m here.” Strong hands gripped her shoulders, and his voice whispered in her ear.
“Oh, Dane!” she cried and turned in his arms, her eyes searching his. She ran a hand through the flaxen hair and touched his face. “You are here! I thought I’d never see you again! It’s been so long. I was trapped and couldn’t get here to you. I didn’t know if you would still be here, waiting for me. Oh, Dane, I’ve missed you so much. I didn’t know if I would find you!” McKenna buried her face against his shirt and sobbed openly.
“I’ll always be here for you.”
“But it’s been so long!” she wailed. “My parents sent the men in the white coats, and they stuck me with a needle. It put me to sleep, and they took me to an institution where I couldn’t see anyone, not even my friends.”
“McKenna, you’re so upset I can’t understand what happened. Who locked you up?”
“My parents did. They found me here. I didn’t know where you were! I was so scared, Dane. And I’m so sorry I let them take me away.”
“Don’t ever be sorry, McKenna. Just help me to understand what happened.”
He listened until she finished, then he rubbed his chin with his hand. “Is that why your friend was here? She was looking for me?”
The color drained from her face. “You saw her? Why didn’t you talk to her? She was supposed to tell you what happened to me, Dane!”
“Why did you try to drown again?” he asked suddenly.
She felt suddenly ashamed. It was a stupid and selfish thing to do, and she told him so now. “It will never happen again,” she promised. “Pinky swear,” she held up her little finger.
He studied it without recognition.
Laughing, she took his pinky finger and wrapped it around hers.
“What does that do?” he asked.
“Now you say pinky swear. It means you absolutely cannot break that promise.”
“And what happens if you do?”
“You’ll go to hell.”
“What?” His eyes widened, and his jaw dropped.
McKenna laughed; her spirits buoyed. “I’m teasing. But it’s like taking an oath.”
“Ah, I get it.” He closed his finger tighter around hers, and she felt the tingle run through her hand and up her arm. “Pinky swear,” he grinned.
“Dane,” she whispered. “I love you.”
He buried his face in her hair and inhaled deeply. “You’re my life, McKenna.”
He rose with his arms around her and led her inside the cabin. Like before, he lit the oil lamps and started a fire with a few charred logs on the grate. In the light of the fire, he ran his hands through her hair and brought his lips to hers. She eagerly returned his kisses.
Like before, they came together on the rug that lay before the fireplace. Afterward, McKenna cried from release on his shoulder.
“I love you,” she said over and over again. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
# # #
McKenna glanced at her watch. It was growing late. She’d promised Dr. Olsen she’d keep an eye on the time and be back at the front entrance by eleven o’clock.
“Dane.” She kissed his earlobe. “I have to go soon.”
“Oh, no, McKenna,” he whispered. “You can’t leave.”
“I promised the doctor. And he promised to let me come back.”
Dane sat up and faced her in the shadows of the fire. “You can come back?”
“Yes, I can,” she said excitedly. “I promised that I would keep doing the sessions and start my studies so that I can work there. That’s how I got to come here tonight.”
“You did a pinky swear?”
She laughed. “Something like that.”
“That’s wonderful, McKenna! When will I be able to see you next?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she watched his face fall. “but I’m sure it will be a lot sooner than four months.”
Dane pulled her to him and squeezed her against him. “I love you, McKenna,” he whispered fiercely. “We can’t let anything come between us again.”
“I can promise you that.”
He held up his little finger. McKenna laughed and wrapped hers around it. “Pinky swear,” they whispered at the same time. Then they fell back to the floor laughing.
“I haven’t been this happy in so long, Dane. I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve missed you, too, McKenna. I hope you can come back soon.”
“Do you live close by? Is that why you’re always here?” she asked suddenly.
Dane nodded. “Yes, not far from here. Promise me something, McKenna?”
“Anything,” she said.
“Promise me that you’ll never try to drown yourself again? I can’t ---I just can’t---”
She put a hand on his chest. “I promise, Dane. Never again.”
“Thank you,” he sighed, running a finger down the bridge of her nose and gently touching her lips. “I can’t lose you. I just found you.”
“Then you have to promise that you’ll never leave me.”
Dane smiled. “That’s an easy one. I promise to never, ever, ever leave you. How’s that?”
“That’s fine,” she said. “As long as you mean it.”
“I mean it.”
“I believe you do.” She let herself relax in his arms.
For the first time since meeting Dane, McKenna wasn’t afraid. Her parents couldn’t stop her anymore. They couldn’t hurt her anymore. The institute that she wanted so badly to leave was now her protector. And the doctor that she used to fear was now her savior.
She kissed him. “I love you, Dane,” she whispered.
“I love you, too, McKenna,” he said as he kissed her back and lay her down on the carpet one more time.
They drove up to her house in silence. “Are you ready for this, McKenna?” Dr. Olsen asked. They sat in the institute’s van, the engine running. The warmth from the heater felt good on her legs. She had been shivering all morning. She suspected it wasn’t from the cold.
“About as ready as I’ll ever be.” Anxiety swirled around her as she gazed at the home she grew up in. Her parents were there waiting for her. She hoped her grandparents were there, too. She hadn’t seen them in a while, and she missed them. “Well, then,” her breath shook. “Let’s get this over with.”
Dr. Olsen had called her parents the day before to let them know she was coming to get a few things from her room. He felt it would make her more comfortable at the institute to have her stuff around her. That’s all he told them. McKenna was grateful for that gesture. There wasn’t any way she could face them alone.
She felt like a stranger as she walked up to the front porch. She couldn’t bring herself to walk in. She stood at the front door, hesitated, then rang the doorbell.
Her father answered.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, voice trembling. “Can I come in?”
“Kenna!” he said. “Of course, you can come in. This is still your home.” He reached out to embrace her.
McKenna shrank back from his touch. He made her feel violated. She felt nothing at the pained expression on his face.
Her mother was in the standing kitchen, wringing her hands. She stopped when McKenna walked into the room.
“McKenna,” she breathed, took two steps toward her, and stopped.
“Hello, Mother,” McKenna said quietly. “I’ve come to get my things.”
“Yes.” Her mother took another step.
McKenna stepped back.
Her mother stopped, chewed on her bottom lip, then caught herself. “Please, please come in. Hello, Dr. Olsen. How are you? Please sit down, would you like some coffee? I have some nice cinnamon rolls—”
“Thank you, Mrs. Dunn,” Dr. Olsen shut her down. “Coffee will be fine.”
“Cream and sugar?”
“Just black, thank you.”
The voices trailed after her as she climbed the stairs. She stood outside of her bedroom. It no longer belonged to her. The double bed with the pink coverlet. The dolls on the pillows. The white shelves with Teenage Love books on them. Did she read that stuff? This room belonged to a child. McKenna didn’t feel like a child anymore.
She found a suitcase in the closet and packed only her clothes. Once she was done, she closed the lid and snapped it shut. She stood at the door again and glanced around. The dolls and books were still there. The child in her was not coming along. She was leaving her behind.
She turned to leave and found her grandmother standing behind her. “Hello, child.”
“Grandma!” she cried, falling into her open arms. “I was hoping to see you! Where’s Grandpa?”
“I’m right behind you, Sweetheart.”
She whirled around. “Grandpa!” She hugged him. “I’ve missed you both so much. Why haven’t you come to visit?”
“You needed time, McKenna,” her grandmother said.
“Yes,” her grandfather interrupted. “We represented home to you. As long as we kept coming to see you, you would never be able to adjust. You would always be missing your past. But it’s time to move on, Sweetheart. Just like it’s time for me and Grandma to move on.”
“Move on? You’re moving on?”
Grandma nodded. “It’s time, child. We’ve discovered that our duty here is fulfilled. Now we can go.”
Fear crossed her face. “Go? You’re leaving?”
They both bobbed their heads. “You won’t need us anymore, Sweetheart. That’s why we were here. Call us your Guardian Angels if that suits you. But our time has come.”
“Now,” Grandma said. “It’s time for you to go downstairs and finish what you need to finish.”
“Oh, Grandma, I’m afraid.”
Her grandmother stroked her hair. “I know you are, Child. But there’s no need. You have a good and kind doctor looking after you. You have a chance at a wonderful career. It’s time to take the bull by the horns, so to speak.”
“Remember we love you, and we’ll always be watching out for you, even if we’re not here.”
McKenna was numb. She wanted to cry, but she couldn’t. She thought maybe she was in shock. Everything was happening too fast.
“Go on now,” her grandmother said. “Take care of your business and get on with your new life.”
“Okay, I will. I love you both. I’m going to miss you.”
They stood hand in hand, and as McKenna watched, they slowly faded away.
Her hand covered her mouth to stop herself from crying after them. Then she gathered her wits, picked up her suitcase, and headed down the stairs.
Dr. Olsen and her parents were seated at the kitchen table. Their conversation stopped when she entered the room.
“Everything okay, McKenna,” Dr. Olsen asked.
She swallowed hard and nodded. “It will be,” she said.
“Good. Then have a seat.”
She stiffened as she glared at him. “But I thought—”
“It’s fine, McKenna. Just for a minute. There are some things your parents need to tell you before we leave.”
She looked down at the floor for a moment, then shrugged, set her suitcase down, and pulled out a kitchen chair. She didn’t sit down but stood behind it as if using it for a shield. Her mother said nothing, only stared morosely into her cup of coffee. Her father stared at his hands. Dr. Olsen remained silent.
“Well?” McKenna finally broke the silence.
Her mother started chewing her bottom lip again. She glanced over at her father.
He cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
“You’re not our daughter.”
McKenna decided to sit down after all since the bomb they dropped on her caused her legs to fail. She shoved a lock of red hair behind her ear and rubbed her forehead. “What did you say?”
Her father cleared his throat again. “I said, you’re not our daughter.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she screeched. “I’m not your daughter! Whose daughter, am I?”
“We don’t know,” her mother interjected.
“I don’t believe this.” McKenna rose from the chair and paced about the kitchen. Suddenly, she whirled on them. “How much more?”
“Shut up, Mother!” she screamed, pointing a finger at her. “How much more are you keeping from me, the two of you, and your little secrets? Always whispering and giving each other looks. Have I ever lived a normal life?” She turned around and grabbed at the hair on her head with both hands. She wanted to rip it out by the roots.
“So, tell me.” She came back to the table but didn’t sit down. “If I’m not your daughter, was I adopted?”
The looks again.
“I swear to God, if you two look at each other like that again, I’m going bash your heads together!”
“McKenna, calm down. Be rational.” Dr. Olsen said. “We won’t get anywhere like this.”
She turned on him. “And what do you know, and how long have you known it?”
He held up his hands in defense. “I’m just learning all this myself.”
She whirled back to her parents. Her mother was crying, and her father’s eyes were watery. “Am I?” she asked. “Adopted.”
“No.” Her mother’s voice trembled.
“So, what, then, I’m an alien or something. I landed in your backyard? Speak up.”
Her mother took a deep, ragged breath. “You were kidnapped.”
McKenna stared at her mother, her mouth hanging open.
“Kidnapped?” she croaked.
“I wanted a baby so bad,” her mother cried.
“I’m sterile,” her father interrupted. “We couldn’t have any of our own.”
“Sterile,” McKenna repeated. She’d heard that word somewhere before. But her mind whirled so fast she couldn’t remember.
“I was a nurse on the maternity floor. Every day I would see these beautiful babies born, and I knew I could never have one. The day you were born, with your beautiful red hair and blue eyes, you looked so much like your father…”
“Stop! I can’t think!” McKenna sat down hard and, placing her arms on the table, buried her face. Her thoughts were jumbled and slipped through her fingers every time she tried to grab one. Finally, she raised her head and looked at her father.
“Why did you throw me in the lake?”
Her mother gasped. Her father only stared open-mouthed.
McKenna held up a hand. “Don’t,” she said. “I know you did it. Don’t deny it.”
He lowered his gaze. For a moment, he was silent, then he started to speak. “I did it because I was drunk. I never wanted a kid, but your mother wouldn’t let it go. When she stole you from the hospital, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want my wife going to prison. The night on the lake, we got into an argument. That’s when I took you out in the boat. I wanted my wife back. I wanted just the two of us again, the way it used to be.”
“The two of you make me sick,” McKenna said bitterly. She turned to Dr. Olsen. “Please, get me out of here.”
The doctor studied her for a moment. “I think the police need to be called. Something has to be done with them.”
She shook her head in defeat. “I don’t care what happens to them, Dr. Olsen. You can call the police if you want. It’s too late for me. I just want to go. Would you please take me to the lake? I need to see Dane.”
She walked out of the house and never looked back.
# # #
Sunlight was creeping into the cabin when McKenna awoke. She yawned and stretched lazily. It was nice to sleep next to Dane and not worry about being caught. Getting to her feet, she dressed and opened the cabin door. The chill of the fall wind made her shiver.
“Dane!” she called out, her voice sounding muffled from the trees. Oh no, not again. “Dane!” she called again.
She whirled around. Dane was standing behind her from inside the cabin.
“You scared me.”
“I’m here,” he repeated. “Always.”
“But sometimes you’re not, and that’s when I panic. I woke up, and you were gone. Sometimes when I need you, you’re not there.”
“But I am here, McKenna,” he insisted. “I am always here.”
“You’re not! You’re not here enough!”
Dane lowered his gaze from her and stared at the ground. “I can’t seem to make you understand.”
“Then help me, Dane, help me to understand.”
“You will in time, very soon, I think.”
Her anger flared. She was getting the same answers that her grandparents had given her. “In time! That’s the only answer I ever get, but I don’t know what that means.”
“McKenna,” Dane said suddenly. “Your parents are coming.”
She furiously wiped at her tears with the back of her hand. “Oh, my God. Why won’t they just go away and leave me alone.” She squinted down the path but saw no one. “I don’t see them.”
“Trust me, they’re coming.”
She turned and grabbed his arms. “Please don’t leave me. I can’t go through this alone.”
“I won’t leave you,” he said. “Pinky swear.”
A sad smile crept through her tears, and she reached for his hand. “I love you, Dane.”
“I love you, too, McKenna. Always.”
McKenna held tight to his hand.
When her parents rounded the bend in the path, McKenna tossed a glance behind her. Dane squeezed her hand in answer.
“McKenna,” her mother approached her.
“Leave me alone, Mother,” she hissed. “Oh, God, I can’t even call you that anymore. You need to go away. Go away and leave Dane and me in peace.”
“Dane?” her mother questioned.
Once again, McKenna squeezed Dane’s hand, and he squeezed hers in return.
“Yes, Dane. I have a future, and you’re not in it. Dane is. He’ll always be there for me. Isn’t that right, Dane?” she asked as she turned and looked at him.
He gazed down at her. “Always,” he confirmed.
“Did you hear that? He said always. And he means it.”
Her mother turned to her father. “Help me, Connor.”
“Kenna, honey, you have to come home,” he said.
“Home! I have no home with the two of you. You’re not even my real parents. My life is in shambles, and it’s all because of your lies. I meant it when I said I never want to see the two of you again!”
Her father stepped toward her. McKenna clung to Dane.
“Tell them, Dane,” she cried. “Tell them I have you, and I don’t need anyone else. Tell them I’m happy here with you.”
He wrapped an arm tighter around her shoulders. “I can’t, McKenna.”
“Why not?” she sobbed. “Why can’t you tell them?”
“Because they won’t listen to me.”
She turned back to her parents. “You see? You won’t even listen to him. Why won’t you listen?”
Her mother started to cry, and her father placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Kenna,” he started to say.
“Don’t call me that,” she hissed.
He held up his hands. “Okay, but will you at least come with us, just for a bit? Your mother and I want to show you something.”
“I can’t trust you,” she answered.
“You can,” her father said. “Just this one time, you can trust us.”
She looked to Dane. He had a look of concern on his face, but he nodded in agreement.
Her parents didn’t try to touch her or take her hand. They only turned and started down the path toward the lake.
McKenna turned around once to see Dane wave at her. For some reason, she felt like he was waving goodbye.
# # #
The SUV was uncomfortably quiet. McKenna didn’t speak. She wasn’t happy leaving Dane behind since she had no idea where they were taking her.
Suddenly the old cemetery came into view. “Why are we here?” McKenna demanded.
“There’s something we have to show you,” her father said. “We should have done it sooner.”
He opened the car door and climbed out. He reached for McKenna’s hand, but she pulled away. She didn’t want either of them touching her.
She didn’t want to be in this cemetery. She had a horrible feeling this wouldn’t turn out well, and she should stop them. But she continued to follow them down the path.
She stopped and stood still in the quiet graveyard. Suddenly the bile rose in her throat. She leaned over and vomited on the grass. “No,” she moaned. “I’m not going to follow you. I’m going back to Dane.”
“Kenna!” her mother pleaded. “Please listen. There’s something you have to know.”
“No!” she cried. “I’ve heard enough. I can’t take anymore. I need to think, but you keep coming at me. Why can’t you just leave me alone? You’re not my parents. You’re strangers to me. Just go away!”
Her mother grabbed her by the arm. “You can’t see Dane anymore, McKenna.”
“Let me go!” she pulled her arm from her mother’s grasp. “Why won’t you leave us alone?”
“I’m begging you, McKenna, please don’t see him anymore!”
“Why not, Mother?”
“You’ll die if you go to him!”
“That’s absurd. Dane won’t let me die. He’s the one that saved me…”
She stopped in mid-sentence.
All of her sessions with Dr. Olsen opened up. She saw herself as a child, drowning, saw her father hang over the boat, heard the harsh words her parents spoke to each other. She saw herself wake up on the little beach by the cemetery and looking up into blue eyes. And that’s when she saw Dane’s face and heard his voice.
“You’ll be all right now.”
# # #
Her mother stared at her. “Listen to me, McKenna.”
McKenna grew faint, her vision darkening before her. “I feel sick,” she mumbled.
Her mother grabbed her by the hand and knelt at her feet. “I don’t care anymore what happens to your father or me. I don’t care if we go to jail. But, McKenna, I’ve loved you all your life, and you’ll always be my little girl. I’m so sorry all this happened.”
“You’re not,” McKenna pulled her hand free. “I don’t feel well.”
“Please come.” Her father approached her slowly. “Please, Kenna. You need to see.”
The sun was shining through the trees. A slight breeze stirred the branches as they led her through the cemetery and past the old monuments that were once underwater.
She followed them in a daze. Everything seemed surreal. The beautiful morning she woke up to was suddenly dark and filled with evil.
Her parents stopped and waited for her to catch up. “This is what we wanted to show you,” her dad said.
McKenna peered at the carving on the headstone. It was the old, weather-beaten gravestone she had refused to look at when she first came here with her friends.
She read the lettering, “Jan Jankowski, Born 1900, Died 1942. On the other side, she read, “Dane Jankowski, Born 1922, Died 1942”.
“What is this?”
“You needed proof,” her mother said. “Here’s your proof, McKenna.”
“I don’t understand. This makes no sense at all. Who are these people?”
“This is why you can’t be with Dane. This is why you can’t love him.”
“I love him, Mother, and he loves me!”
“You can’t love him!
“You tell me why! Why, Mother? Why can’t I love him? Why can’t we be together?”
McKenna buried her face in her hands and started to cry. The answer was there, right in front of her. An answer she didn’t want to accept but one that she knew all along.
“Because McKenna… because he’s dead.”
On her 21st birthday, McKenna walked into Mosquito Lake without looking back. She hoped Dane would be waiting for her on the other side, and he wouldn’t be angry. This decision belonged to her, and it was what she wanted. There was no life without him, and to live a life without him would be too cruel.
Just like before, she walked in slowly, letting the cold water rise above her ankles, then her waist, then her chest. She was not afraid but apprehensive. She was frightened of the panic she would feel once she started to drown. She was afraid once the panic started, she would not be able to go through with it.
She already knew what to expect from the previous times she had drowned. She knew it would not be pleasant. But thinking about the past three years without him kept her feet moving. The water was now up to her neck. She thought she should take a deep breath then laughed at the idea. A deep breath would not be required.
Falling to her knees, she let the water cover her completely. She kept her eyes closed and inhaled deeply. She started to choke at once but swallowed more water when she tried to breathe. Only her thoughts of the last three years kept her going. Only the memories of Dane and the last time she saw him compelled her onward.
The day her parents took her to the cemetery, Dane had waved at her from the cabin door. It became the final goodbye she had feared. She would never forget him standing in the doorway of the cabin, his blond hair shining in the sun, his blue eyes glistening with what she now knew were unshed tears. He knew where her parents were taking her. He knew it was the end.
After her parents took her Dane’s grave, she tried to move on. She went back to the institute and her career. She grew close with Dr. Olsen (she was to call him Liam now). When she turned twenty, Liam asked her to marry him.
She did love him, but she was never in love with him. He was kind, honest, and caring, but he wasn’t what she wanted, and she could never marry him. She would be cheating him out of genuine love, a happy life with someone else. And he deserved that kind of happiness.
She loved her career at the institute and took her job seriously. She studied hard and became a counselor, helping those with paranormal abilities cope with their lives.
She never saw her parents again.
Her friends moved on with their lives. Kelly married an attorney and moved to Oregon.
Raven was a manager at the McDonalds in town.
Layla found a career in real estate.
McKenna spent the next three years trying to accept that she would never see Dane again, but he would come to her in dreams. He would kiss her, hold her, and make love to her. The dreams were so real that she woke up almost every morning begging for him to return.
She spent every idle hour at the cemetery. She would sit for hours at his grave and wait. She would cry and beg and plead for him to come back to her. But Dane never came.
Now, she was going to see him again. She was going to kiss him and feel his arms around her. She would make love with him without anyone coming between them. She felt the peace settle over her as the darkness took her life away. She welcomed it. It was almost over.
# # #
McKenna opened her eyes and found herself peering into the deep blue eyes that saved her so many years ago. Dane cradled her head in his arms, and she half lay in his lap. He gazed intently at her and was aware when she became conscious. His lips brushed her forehead.
“Not again, McKenna,” he whispered, shaking his head in defeat.
“Dane! Why did you save me again?” she cried, her voice cracking from the saltwater swallowed. “I’ve been trying to find you. I’ve called for you, but you never came. I’ve searched for you, but you were never there. Why, Dane, why?”
“You know why, McKenna.” He shifted his position. “We live in two different worlds.”
She forced herself up on her elbows. “I don’t care. I want to live in your world with you. I have to do something so we can be together. It’s the only thing I can think of.”
“It doesn’t work that way, McKenna.”
“Then how does it work, Dane? Help me to understand. I can’t make it any longer being without you.”
“I don’t know how it works. I just know it doesn’t work that way. You don’t get to pick and choose where and when you die. Do you think I wanted to drown at the age of twenty? Do you think I wanted for my life to end just when it was getting started?”
“But, Dane...” she started to say.
He held up a hand to silence her. “What I’m saying, McKenna, is that the only good thing that came out of my death was an existence with you in it and that only happened because you died, too. But it wasn’t your time.”
“But we did the handfasting thing,” she said, confusion and fear clouding her thoughts. “You said you loved me. You said you wanted me to be your wife.”
“Oh, McKenna,” he murmured. He reached out and pulled her close. “I did, and I still do. I love you beyond anything in life or death. When I first saw you, or when you first could see me, I was ecstatic. And when you told me about the time you drowned and ended up on the beach, I knew that I was the one that saved you. I just didn’t know how I saved a three-year-old and then fell in love with her years later. It made no sense.
“Before you, I rattled around this beach, talking to people and wondering why they wouldn’t talk to me. I didn’t understand what happened to me. I had losses of time. I would be walking down the path in the woods and suddenly be at the cabin. I had no idea that I—had passed on.”
McKenna shivered at the word.
“Once we met, things started to click into place, and I told you about my father drowning in the lake. I went back to the cemetery.”
“Oh no, Dane…”
“Oh yes, McKenna. I found the grave with my name next to my father’s on the tombstone. And then I wondered how you could see me, how I could hold you and kiss you. How we could make love.”
“I know how. My grandfather told me.”
“Go on,” he urged.
“I asked him why I could hug and kiss him if he was dead. He told me that I crossed a threshold when I died. He said that’s why I could see him and Grandma even though I’d never met them in life. I remember being so angry because I asked him how I would know the difference between the living and the dead, and he said that would come with time. I wasn’t pleased with that answer, but that’s all he could tell me.”
“Your grandparents are very wise.”
“They were,” she agreed. “I would love for you to meet them...but…”
The laughter at her suggestion bubbled out of both of them. It all seemed so ridiculous.
When their laughter faded, she turned to him. “I guess that’s why I didn’t know you were---you know.”
“Dead?” he finished for her.
“Yeah, that. I wasn’t able to tell the difference.”
She leaned back against his chest, feeling the warmth of him through her shirt. How could he be dead yet feel so vibrant? “What happens now?”
Dane shook his head and pulled her closer. He sighed deeply. “I don’t know, McKenna. But you’re not going to try taking your life anymore. Please, promise me that.”
“I promise,” she said softly. “And I’m sorry.”
“Pinky swear,” he held up his little finger.
“You remembered!” she laughed, wrapping her little finger around his. “I pinky swear, Dane.”
“Maybe we should go to the cabin, McKenna. I can build a fire and get you warmed up, dry your clothes.”
She nodded hesitantly. She suddenly felt timid. It had been a long time since they had been together.
Dane rose to his feet and took her hands, pulling her up. She lost her footing and leaned up against him for balance. His arms enveloped her. Suddenly his lips were on hers, and it was as if they had never been apart.
The cabin was lit up with the oil lamps as McKenna approached. As always, her heart lifted at the sight of it, knowing that Dane would be inside waiting for her. A warm fire would be burning in the fireplace.
She stopped for a moment, her eyes taking in the modest house. The cabin was no longer just an old shack. It now sported a fresh coat of white paint on the outside. The broken windows had been replaced. The flowers planted along the front were new. The stoop had been replaced by a wrap-around porch complete with a swing.
The sound of the door opening made her glance up. Dane was standing on the threshold, his face lit up with a smile. He was barefoot and shirtless, his twenty-year-old face still young and handsome. “Hello, McKenna,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
She took in the sight of him, her spirits soaring. It had always been this way. Even after ten years, he still waited for her, and her heart still leaped when she saw him. The promise they made to each other on the beach had never been broken by either of them. She promised she would never attempt to take her own life. He promised he would always be there for her.
“Hello, Dane,” she said softly. “I’ve missed you, too.”
He held out his arms, and she stepped into his embrace. With one hand, he lifted her chin. His lips were soft and warm on hers. “Come inside,” he whispered against her mouth. “I have a fire burning. It’s nice and warm.”
With his arms wrapped around her, she walked through the door. The cabin was transformed inside. The walls had been painted, the floor repaired, and a beautiful hardwood covered it. The furniture was new when she first bought it, but it now started to show wear. There was still no electricity, and she found that she preferred that. The oil lamps held too many unforgettable memories.
Dane led her to the couch, and she sat down. He sat down beside her and took her hands in his. “Happy Birthday, McKenna.” His eyes shone brightly from the light of the fire.
She cast her eyes down and stared at their entwined hands. “I don’t want to celebrate any more birthdays. I’m twenty-eight now. And you’re still twenty. What happens when I turn thirty-eight or forty-eight? My hair will go gray, my face will get wrinkled. You’re never going to change. You’ll always be twenty and beautiful.”
The smile disappeared from his face as he studied her. “I love you, McKenna,” he said. “Nothing else matters as far as I’m concerned. It shouldn’t matter to you, either.”
McKenna lifted her eyes to the fire burning in the fireplace. “It feels nice and warm, Dane. Have you figured out yet how you’re able to start a fire and light the oil lamps?”
“I have,” he answered, his face lighting up. This was a subject they discussed a lot over the years. “So in between your visits, I’ve been experimenting a bit. You see, I’ve discovered that I can do things in this world. But...” he held up one finger when he saw she was about to interrupt. “I can only do things and pick up things that were here when I was alive. I can light the oil lamps because they are from my time. I can build a fire for that reason. Anything that I did when I was alive, I can still mostly do as long as the things I’m using are things I used when I was alive or things that are from my time.”
“Amazing,” McKenna’s eyes widened as she turned her attention to him. “So, I guess that’s why you can kiss me and make love to me? It’s something you did in your own time, hmm?”
Dane threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Not even close, my love. I can do this,” he leaned forward and brushed her lips with his, “because I love you and because I knew you before.’
“And I can do this,” his fingers lightly touched her breast through her shirt,
“Because I love you and because you have one foot in my world. And I can do this,” he drew an arm around her and gently pulled her down on the couch. He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t have to.
McKenna reached the cabin after dark. She noticed that the cabin’s exterior was due for another coat of paint. Her flowers had died from the previous winter. The wrap-around porch needed to be weatherized, too.
The oil lamps were lit, and the fire was burning in the fireplace. Each time McKenna came to Mosquito Lake and walked the path to the cabin, a fear would clutch her heart that these signs of him would not be there. She caught herself holding her breath until she rounded the bend and could see the lights through the trees.
Each year, as they agreed, she would visit the cabin only on her birthday. Dane refused to deny McKenna a life in the real world. He was afraid she would resent him in time if that were to happen. McKenna argued fiercely with him. She didn’t want to only see him once a year. She needed him all the time.
But in the end, common sense won out. McKenna knew she had to support herself. She had to have a place to live, clothes to wear, and food to eat. She didn’t like it, but she agreed to Dane’s wishes and only came to the cabin once a year. It was during these weekends that she and Dane fixed up the cabin.
This year was no different. It wasn’t until she saw the lights of the cabin that McKenna exhaled a relieving breath. The front door was open, and Dane stood on the threshold waiting for her. A smile lit up his face when he saw her approach.
“Hello, McKenna!” he said excitedly. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Hello, Dane,” she said shyly. Once more, she felt they were starting over. It would take her some time to get used to things again.
The fire inside was warm and inviting. The weather had turned unusually cool for this time of year. It made McKenna’s bones ache.
“Happy birthday, McKenna,” Dane said, his eyes sparkling from the light of the fire. “I wish I could buy you presents. Just saying ‘Happy Birthday’ doesn’t seem to be enough anymore.”
She smiled at him as she sat down wearily on the couch. It would take her a few minutes to catch her breath. Once she did, she said. “You can even for-go the ‘Happy Birthdays’ if you want, Dane. I’ve seen too many of them now, and I’m just getting older.”
Dane sat down next to her on the couch and placed a gentle arm around her shoulders. “Have you ever wondered, McKenna, why I’m still here?” he asked.
She thought about his question for a moment. “I guess sometimes I have. I know every year I come. I’m so afraid you’ll be gone. It’s a terrible feeling. We don’t know why you’re here or for how long. But we’ve had many years together.”
Dane nodded. He rested his head on hers. “It still won’t be enough,” he said softly. “I need an eternity with you, McKenna.”
Burning tears filled her eyes. It was the same for her. But an eternity she didn’t have. She was already sixty-four years old, and the doctor told her that her heart was in terrible shape. She’d been taking medication, but it would only prolong her life for a short time. She wasn’t sure how she could tell Dane.
Her eyes felt heavy as she relaxed in his arms. She felt his lips kiss the top of her head, and she smiled. She’d loved him a lifetime. Her lifetime. She didn’t know what would happen to him when she was gone.
“I love you, Dane,” she whispered. “I’ve loved you all my life. I’m so tired now.”
“I need to sleep, Dane. We can talk more when I wake up. I’m so tired,” she lay down on the couch and closed her eyes.
She heard him call her name, but it seemed to come from a great distance. Her eyes felt leaden, and she couldn’t open them. She felt as if she were floating.
“McKenna!” Dane’s voice was filled with panic as he rose from the couch. He lay her head gently down and touched her face. “McKenna!” he cried. “No, you can’t! Please, McKenna, please wake up!” He kissed her brow. It was cool.
His tears fell on her face, and he wiped them away with his thumb. He wrapped her in his arms and rocked back and forth with her. “Don’t leave me,” he cried. “Please don’t leave me.”
He felt a hand stroke his hair, and he froze. “I won’t leave you, Dane.” The voice was very soft.
Dane turned and wiped at the tears with the back of his hand.
“I’m not there anymore,” she said quietly. “I’m here now, with you.”
He lay McKenna’s body down on the couch and stood up. His eyes drank her in.
She was seventeen again, the age when they’d first discovered each other. The long red hair was no longer gray but shining with a renewed vitality. Her green eyes sparkled with humor at Dane’s stunned expression. The wrinkles were gone from her face.
“You said we couldn’t choose where we went when we died. But you were wrong. I chose to be here with you. Now, we do have an eternity.”
“McKenna.” His mouth curved into a smile as he wrapped her in his arms. She felt more real to him than ever before. He knew what she said was true. “Now we’ll be together, forever,” he whispered as he kissed her.
“Yes, my love.” She answered his kiss. “Always.”
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