by Carolyn Elizabeth
As kids, best friends Willa Dunn and Lee Chandler spend every summer together at the idyllic Upstate New York community of Forestlands Lake, nestled in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains. During the summer before they turn sixteen—just as the two are discovering that there might be something more to their friendship—a tragic accident befalls Willa’s family and without warning, Willa and Lee’s world is torn apart.
Twenty-five years later Willa is a successful author of the young adult ghost stories she loved to read as a child. She returns to the lake looking for a writer’s retreat and an opportunity to connect with her troubled teenage sister, Nicole.
Lee, now a single mother to her wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter Maggie, is the director of the summer camp on the other side of Forestlands Lake.
Before Willa and Nicole even have the chance to unpack, their plans are upset by a mysterious young girl, a near drowning, and a surprise reunion. Soon Willa and Lee are working to protect the girls, reconcile their past and unearth the secrets surrounding Forestlands Lake—putting old ghosts to rest once and for all.
“Elizabeth (Gallows Humor) delivers her signature blend of lesbian romance and murder in this suspenseful outing. …the charming characters will draw in readers, and the plot ultimately hangs together nicely. Fans of romantic suspense are sure to be pleased.” – Publishers Weekly
FROM THE AUTHOR
"For three summers when I was in high school I nannied for a young girl at a small private lakeside community not unlike the one I describe in this book. To my knowledge, everyone that summered there was a good person, no one died or went missing while I was there, and it wasn’t haunted.
The memories of my time there—the quirky characters, secret party bonfires in the woods, and teenage firsts—have stuck with me all these years. When my often unpredictable muse insisted I write a ghost story this was the perfect place to go with it for me.
This being my first foray into the genre of paranormal I had no idea where to start. I quite literally sat down and googled “How to write a ghost story.” I came across a random blog whose author I can’t recall, but whose advice was exactly what I wanted to hear—the best ghost stories are the ones without an actual ghost in them.
I took that advice to heart and made it my own and I love the finished product. I hope you do, too. I can’t wait to revisit these characters for another hair raising, paranormal mystery. I have the title and cover ready to go."
Elizabeth (Gallows Humor) delivers her signature blend of lesbian romance and murder in this suspenseful outing. Paranormal YA author Willa Dunn steps into her own ghost story when she returns to her childhood summer home at Forestlands Lake. She’s hoping to work on her next book and reconnect with her half-sister, rebellious teenager Nicole, but her plans are derailed by a series of spectral visitations. When Nicole gets drunk and almost drowns in the lake, Willa’s childhood sweetheart, Lee Chandler, saves her. Lee, now the director of a summer camp for LGBTQ youth, and her daughter, Maggie, join together with Willa and Nicole to investigate the haunting. Between ghostly possessions and cryptic conversations with mysterious neighbors, Willa and Lee rekindle the flame that was barely allowed to flicker back when they were both closeted teens. Though the story hits some speed bumps trying to juggle the tense mystery and the lighthearted romance, the charming characters will draw in readers, and the plot ultimately hangs together nicely. Fans of romantic suspense are sure to be pleased.
The Lesbian Review
The author uses great descriptions and innocuous little details to give the community surrounding the lake a disturbing personality. This is a nice juxtaposition with the giddiness Willa and Lee feel over being reunited. I enjoyed losing myself in a paranormal story. I’m pretty set in my ways about sticking to the romance genre, but this was a nice change of pace. The book is well paced, and it’s spooky enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck without making you need to sleep with the lights on.
T. Geist - Love this author's books, so I was happy to see a new one for me to read. This one still had they mystery of an unsolved case, but in a totally different way. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but it definitely was more...spooky?
What I particularly liked about this book is that the two main characters were both ready to date. There wasn't so much baggage, or another person, or anything else holding them back. They just met up again, got to know each other as adults, and moved into dating. It was really lovely to read a book without unnecessary dating drama.
What made this book so much more than just that "simple" love story was all the extra background about the lake, Willa's relationship with her sister, and Nicole and Maggie's growing friendship. The author is so great at drawing you into worlds that I was engrossed throughout the whole thing. So many great side characters and backstories.
Overall, solid book to read and different enough that I'll remember it.
Tere H. - I really enjoyed this book. The descriptions are great and suck you right into a ghostly atmosphere. Elizabeth’s best skill as an author is her ability to write great chemistry. Willa and Lee’s chemistry was palpable from the beginning. Overall, an excellent mystery/paranormal story with a sweet romance in the background.
R. Swier - ...a mix of paranormal, mystery, and romance. Aside from the paranormal story line, there were other interesting elements that made this story engaging. The characters were very likable with a history that accelerated their romance.
I enjoyed this author’s writing style. The ghostly/mystery story line was entertaining while other parts were both heartbreaking and heartfelt. But everything balanced out nicely.
Carol C. - I said I wasn’t a big fan of paranormal genre but this book had me hooked right at the start of hearing splashing water when no one was there. The story is full of colorful characters, some more suspicious, and I had about 3 pegged as “the one,”, but in the end, a twist I did not see coming. ...I loved this story—the author’s flow with words and keeping the pace up in the book was perfect. I am so glad I picked up this book, this author will definitely be on my must read list going forward, and I plan to pick up her past books with anticipation.
Andi K. - Awesome book. A second-chance romance with murder-mystery and supernatural haunting on the side. ...I love Carolyn Elizabeth's other books so jumped at this one and did not regret it!
Jules P. - There’s just the right amount of spookies, mystery, and romance. Lee and Willa fire up the pages every time they are in the same space and I appreciate the way these two 40-year-old women are very sexy in every possible way. I also liked the bits involving the past teens as well as Lee’s daughter and Willa’s sister.
For the scaredy-cats, this is not too heavy but there’s just enough to have you wondering—what was that funny noise you just heard in the attic?
It took only one book by Carolyn Elizabeth for me to decide that she was a must-read author. This is her third and it proves true again.
I love Elizabeth’s stories but even if I didn’t, I’d read her books for the characters. She makes me fall in love with all of them.
There are many layers to this book, and so we don’t get one mystery but two. Well-thought, complex and thrilling mysteries. Everything came as a surprise yet still made complete sense (in a paranormal way).
Carolyn Elizabeth is proving that she could write any genre and I’d want to read it. In this book, you get romance, paranormal and mystery all in one, with each element being as important and as well-crafted.
Pin's Reviews - The plot is solid, very interesting and exciting. The pacing is flawless, making the book a page-turner. The protagonists are very likable and I really found myself caring about them. And not only that, I find myself strongly rooting for them to fix things and start a life as it was supposed to be for them. The younger pair of characters are great too, with a very important role in the narrative. The author did a very good job with them, as well as with numerous secondary characters. All in all, a really enjoyable story which I will read again. I highly recommend it, and am looking forward to other books by Carolyn Elizabeth.
Zoe S. - A paranormal lesbian romance wouldn't normally be my first choice of book (yes, I'm a scaredy-cat), but I had read a lot of good things about The Other Side of Forestlands Lake and I knew I had to check it out for myself. And I'm really glad I did. Yes, the paranormal features heavily throughout the book, but it's not overwhelming and the book features a second-chance romance trope that I'm a sucker for.
I was riveted for the first half of the book and just wanted answers to everything! The secondary characters, Willa's sister Nicole and Lee's daughter Maggie, were really well-developed and played an integral part in uncovering the murky truths of the lake. I'll certainly check out other books by Elizabeth as she definitely knows how to tell a story!
It’s not very explicit, I would say moderately with a much sweeter vibe, but the characters have some nice chemistry. I really felt the attraction between them so I didn’t miss out on not having steamy sex scenes.
The mysteries were well written and very interesting to see how the clues unfolded. This charming lake town sure has some sketchy people, yikes. There are plenty of suspects and while I was checking them off one by one, I did not solve the crime on my own. Elizabeth got one past me and I like when that happens.
This is a book that I would absolutely recommend. If you are a fan of Elizabeth, don’t hesitate for a second to read this. If you want a good read for Halloween, get this. Elizabeth knows how to write and her stories are clever with good characters. This book was really gripping and I loved every minute of it.
Betty H. - With every book I’ve read by Carolyn Elizabeth, I’ve fallen more in love with her writing, and that continues to be true after reading The Other Side of Forestlands Lake. Ms. Elizabeth did a wonderful job with the setting and the eerie mood of this tale. The characters, both main and secondary, are well developed and fit their roles in the story perfectly. Some of the secondary characters really add to the gloomy darkness of the setting. The story itself and the mystery of the tale is intriguing and spine-tingling in all the right places.
I thoroughly enjoyed this paranormal/mystery/romance and have added it to my favorites list.
Twenty-six years ago
Sasha Mathers looked around quickly to make sure no one was watching before stepping onto the empty school bus. She felt like she was always getting into trouble for wandering off and being where she wasn’t supposed to. Immediately the cacophony of voices outside—shrieking, excited kids, hollering, clapping parents, and shouting camp counselors—was muffled as she walked down the aisle. It looked just like the bus she took to school with the same rows of green vinyl bench seats and grimy windows, nearly impossible to open by little hands.
She trailed her fingertips across each seat as she worked her way to the back, eying the backpacks and other personal items belonging to the kids whose parents couldn’t make the drive for the last day of camp. All items were waiting for their owners to take their seats and bump along the hour-long return journey from Forestlands Camp to Troy, New York.
She stopped at the seat with a pretty pink and purple backpack with the fuzzy head of a stuffy poking out. When she saw the girl walk by with the stuffy in her arms it looked just like the one she had been begging her parents to buy her and she had to know for certain. She looked around again and peered through the window. No one was nearby or heading her way.
She carefully unzipped the backpack and wiggled the stuffy free. It was Spots the dog. She hugged the puppy to her chest briefly and stroked its ears before easing it back into its place and zipping it closed carefully. She hoped the other little girl wouldn’t be upset if she knew she touched him.
She hurried off the bus and looked around for her parents, feeling guilty about what she had done. She wasn’t supposed to touch other people’s things without their permission. Her parents were heading toward one of the cabins with her big brother. Her father was looking around anxiously, probably looking for her.
She ran to catch up with them, her father breaking into a relieved smile and holding out his hand for her. She took it and skipped along to keep up with their fast pace. There was a storm coming, he said, and they wanted to get home before it started to rain, so they weren’t going to spend a lot of time touring the camp.
She looked up to the sky and felt the chill across her skin. Her thin tank top and shorts were doing little to keep her warm. The bright, warm late summer day was giving way to darkening clouds. Gusts of wind blew through the trees while her brother chattered to their parents about his bunkmates, camp food, bugs, the condition of the bathhouses and his cabin’s kickball championship.
She was quiet and patient while they toured the mess hall, but then she started getting fidgety again. She pulled away from her father as they walked through the arts cabin and her brother showed them the whittling knives he got to use.
After a quick walk-through of his smelly boy cabin, she slipped away and headed toward the water and the distant sound of children splashing and screeching in fun. She kicked out of her flip-flops, leaving them in the sand of the small beach, and waded into the water past her ankles.
Across the small lake she could see a little lakeside village with rows of colorful cabins visible through the trees. Children ran along the beach and swam out to their floating dock. A handful of kids tried to outdo their friends when they jumped crazily into the water, only to swim around to the ladder and do it again. Parents supervised from the beach or from the shallows while holding the hands of toddling little brothers and sisters.
Sasha walked along the beach in the water, curling her toes into the gravelly lake sand as she walked to the one end of the small beach where the rocky shore began and the forest closed in.
On the other side of the lake was a dirt cliff with a tree jutting out of the water at the base, where it looked like it broke off part of the land’s edge when it fell. It could be perfect for a rope swing but maybe it was too high and that’s why there wasn’t one that she could see. She studied it for another moment before walking through the water to the other end of the beach.
Across the lake was a pier with a girl at the end, standing on the bottom rung of the safety railing and waving. She was too far away to see her face clearly, but somehow Sasha knew the girl was smiling and waving at her.
She shielded her eyes and waved back, smiling and wondering if in another life they could be friends. Maybe they already were and she didn’t know it. No, she would know if she had a friend with hair that light. The other girl’s head turned at a shout from behind her and she continued to wave for another moment while she walked backward down the pier. Then she turned to catch up with a woman and an older girl walking away along the road parallel to the water.
A gust of wind brought with it the smell of cigarette smoke and Sasha scrunched up her nose looking around for the source. She heard a sizzle of wet sparks and the squeak of rubber and lap of water. Peering into the tree line at the water’s edge she spied the dark green, inflatable boat.
“Hi,” a soft voice called to her.
“Hi,” she whispered back, brushing her dark hair out of her face, cocking her head this way and that to get a look at the speaker.
“What’s your name?” the friendly voice asked.
“Sasha.” She answered and stepped closer to the trees, seeing a flash of eyes and white teeth through the branches. “Do you go to camp here?” she asked.
“Sometimes, Sasha,” the voice answered. “Do you?”
“I’m only eight. Next year I can come.”
“I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends. I don’t have a lot of friends.”
“What are you doing here?” Sasha asked.
“The last day of camp is always so fun and no one ever notices me, so I like to just be somewhere out of the way and watch.”
“No one is paying attention to me either. Is that your boat?”
“No, but I’m allowed to use it. Would you like to see it? Maybe we can be friends.”
“Yes, please.” Her mother would be proud she remembered her manners. Sasha took the offered hand and stepped into the boat.
Twenty-five years ago
Willa Dunn picked her way along the well-worn path through the woods. She was so familiar with it that she was able to continue reading without a single misstep. She skirted the fire pit and the scattered stumps and logs that the teenagers of Forestlands Lake community used as chairs when they went out into the woods to party. She found the lesser-used path and ventured deeper into the woods, angling back toward the lake, winding steadily uphill for a hundred yards.
She glanced up to her favorite reading spot and settled against the massive oak rooted deeply on the wooded cliff overlooking the lake thirty feet below. Her bum fit perfectly into the depressed dirt seat she’d made after many hours in this spot.
She took a moment as she always did and trained her gaze on the other side of the lake. She could just make out the edges of the camp’s buildings through the trees. The camp across the lake, which had been so lively every other summer, was now quiet and sad. It had remained vacant since the unsolved disappearance of little Sasha Mathers the year before, and the property was now up for sale. No one wanted to send their child to a camp where the kids went missing. Apparently, no one wanted to buy it either.
Several families in the community packed up immediately and sold their property. Others that stayed never talked about it openly and pretended like it had never happened, but she couldn’t help but think on it. She wondered if someone was still looking for Sasha. Probably her mom. She knew other kids wondered, too, but if any ever asked they were ignored or the subject was changed.
She shook off her melancholy and crossed her legs, hunching over to continue reading the spooky young adult ghost stories she loved so much. The late summer afternoon sunlight beamed through the canopy providing more than enough light.
Her heart leapt, a small gasp escaping from her lips as she quickly turned the page. The wind rustled through the trees and crackled in the brush. Crunching leaves were her soundtrack while she read the last few pages of the story, savoring every word. Her heart pounded with welcome fear and excitement.
“Thought I’d find you here.”
Willa screeched, the book falling from her lap when she jumped and twisted around, her hand covering her mouth. “Holy crap! Lee, don’t do that!” she yelled when she saw her friend behind her.
“What?” Lee Chandler ignored her friend’s distress, dropped onto the ground and crossed her long legs in front of her. She picked up the book and brushed off the dirt. “I wasn’t even trying to be quiet.”
Willa relaxed and settled back down. “I was reading.”
“Shocking. When aren’t you reading?”
“When I’m writing.” Willa sniffed defensively and gestured for the book.
Lee studied the dark, haunting cover and affected a shudder before handing it over with a crooked grin. “Doesn’t reading this stuff give you the creeps?”
“Yeah, totally, but I like the jittery, nervous feeling in my belly and how my heart beats hard. Like when you go through a haunted house or corn maze on Halloween. You don’t think it’s fun?”
“I’d rather be swimming.”
“Or playing basketball or soccer or baseball. You’re such a tomboy,” Willa teased. “Have you ever even read a book?”
“That’s what happens when your parents give you a boy’s name. And I had to read Romeo and Juliet when I was a freshman last year. Didn’t really understand it, but all that forbidden love stuff was kinda cool.”
“What would you know about forbidden love?”
Lee fiddled with a blade of grass in her fingers. “I’ll read your book when you get published, Will.”
“Yeah? I’ll autograph it for you and everything.”
Lee stared at her a moment and looked away across the lake. “We’re supposed to get rain this afternoon and I want to go for a swim. Do you have your suit on? Will you come with me?”
“I really wanted to finish this.” She wagged the book at her.
“Come on, please? My mom won’t let me go into the lake on my own and the story won’t go anywhere.”
“Yeah, but if I stop and start, I lose all the fun, spooky feelings.”
Lee sighed dramatically. “Okay.” She crawled on hands and knees toward the edge and peered over at the collapsed portion of ridge that had washed out in the horrible late summer storm several years ago, taking a monster oak with it. “Think I could climb down that? There’s a lot of exposed roots to hang onto.”
“Don’t mess around, Lee. Could you just move back from the edge?”
“Or rappel? I’ve always wanted to try that.”
“Lee, please. You know how I feel about heights.”
Lee smirked. “Worried about me?”
“If I say yes,” Willa gestured frantically, “will you move back?”
“If you’re so scared of heights, why do you come up here?”
“It’s peaceful and I like the view.” Her voice rose an octave and she closed her eyes. “Which I can see perfectly fine from right here.”
“Well, if you won’t go swimming with me what else am I supposed to do?” Lee asked, scooting back toward her.
“That’s emotional blackmail.” She cracked an eye to see it was safe and exhaled quietly.
“Did it work?”
Willa chewed her lip. “Oh, all right. I hate it when you pout.”
She stood and brushed herself off, holding out her hand to pull Lee to her feet. “Hurry up before I change my mind.”
Lee jumped up and slung her arm around Willa’s neck, pulling her close and ruffling her mop of brown, shoulder-length hair. “You’re the best, Will.”
Willa laughed and pushed her away. “Get off, you maniac.”
“You love me,” Lee taunted, eyes flashing merrily, and bumped hips with her.
“You wish.” Willa pushed her away again. Lee stumbled on the trail, her smile faltering when she turned to look back and Willa wondered for a beat if she had hurt her feelings.
“Race you to the floating dock!” Lee shouted and took off down the trail, pulling her shirt over her head and revealing her suit.
Willa started to run. “Come on! That’s cheating.”
They lay on the floating dock, close but not touching, while they warmed and dried in the sun.
Willa turned on her side to face Lee, propping her head up on her arm. “You know, I can’t help but notice there’s not a cloud in the sky.”
“Huh.” Lee blinked up at the clear blue sky as if seeing it for the first time. “I really thought it was going to rain. But, aren’t you glad we came swimming?”
Willa sighed, relaxed and warm. “Yes. The summer is almost over and we don’t have much time before school starts. My parents have already started packing up the cabin.”
“Yeah,” Lee agreed flatly and fell silent.
Willa hesitated. “How’s your mom?”
Lee’s expression tensed. “She has to have a hysterotomy when we get back.”
“Hysterectomy,” Willa corrected. “It’s when they remove the uterus and cervix and—”
“Yeah, I know.”
Willa flinched. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Lee closed her eyes, briefly. “Sorry. I’m just scared about what’s happening. They said something about chemo and radiation treatment. They caught the cancer early but I don’t really understand any of it, and it all sounds awful. Being sick and losing your hair.”
Willa grasped Lee’s hand, threading their damp wrinkly fingers together. “I wish we lived closer in the real world so I could be there for you.”
Lee looked down at their joined hands and then up at Willa. She didn’t pull away. “I wish you could, too. There isn’t really anyone at my school I talk about this stuff with.”
“Maybe this year you’ll meet someone,” Willa offered hopefully.
“Maybe,” she mumbled. “Have you ever kissed anyone, Will?”
Willa’s face flushed with heat. “You know I haven’t. I would have told you.”
Lee released Willa’s hand and turned onto her side, mirroring her position so they were face-to-face, inches between them. “Why not? Don’t you want to?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just haven’t met a boy I feel that way about.”
Lee held her eyes. “What about a girl?”
Willa’s eyes went wide, but her heart gave a little stutter at the thought. “What do you mean? Like kiss a friend for practice?”
“No, I mean…” Lee frowned and flopped back onto the dock, staring up at the sky. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I meant. Forget it.”
“There was this episode of Picket Fences where Kimberly kisses her friend Lisa and then is all worried that she might be gay. So funny,” Willa giggled.
“Hilarious,” Lee muttered.
“No, I mean funny she was worried. Not that she was…or might be—”
“Whatever. I don’t care.”
“I do,” Willa said sincerely, wishing Lee would look at her again. “Are you asking me, Lee?”
“No. I was just, you know, wondering.”
“Oh.” She was surprised at her disappointment. “Okay.”
Lee was quiet a long time, before she turned back over on her side to look at Willa. “What if I was?”
Willa narrowed her eyes comically. “No Frenching?”
“Okay, if you want.”
Lee’s brows rose. “Yeah, maybe. I’ll think about it.”
The dock tipped and rocked when someone else climbed up, interrupting their privacy.
“Hiya, Lee.” Emily, Willa’s little sister, came to stand over them dripping cold lake water all over them. There was no doubt they were sisters. The two girls had the same delicate features and slight builds, although Emily’s white-blond hair made her look as if she’d stepped from the pages of a fantasy story. Willa had been blessed with unremarkable brown.
“Move, Em, jeez!” Willa shrieked and scooted from under the drips.
Emily scowled. “You’re going to get wet again anyway unless you think you can walk on water.”
“I don’t know, Em.” Lee sat up and adjusted the straps of her one-piece suit she had nearly grown out of over the summer. “Willa is pretty amazing.”
“What size bra do you wear now, Lee?” Emily asked excitedly, ignoring Lee’s praise of her sister. “You must be almost a C-cup by now.” She cupped her own budding twelve-year-old breasts.
“Emily,” Willa scolded. “If Mom heard you saying something like that she’d whack you.”
“As if.” Emily sneered at her sister. “Mom’s not here and you’re just mad ’cause you’re three years older, but shorter than me and we have the same size boobs and—”
“Emily, your sister is pretty just the way she is,” Lee interrupted. “And so are you,” she added when Emily’s face fell.
“You think I’m pretty?” Emily beamed, jutting her hip out, her expression brightening again.
“Sure, I do.” Lee grinned. “The Dunn sisters are my absolute favorite people in the world.” She smiled and winked at Willa who rolled her eyes while adjusting her bikini top, which had a tendency to ride up without much to keep it in place.
“Looks like it’s time for swimming lessons,” Willa said as the beach began to fill up with kids, parents, and the teenagers the community of Forestlands Lake hired every summer to teach lessons. “Time to go, I guess.”
“Mom says we’re having spaghetti for dinner,” Emily announced while she ran across the dock and leapt off into a cannonball.
“You wanna come over for dinner tonight?” Willa asked.
“Can’t.” Lee shook her head and smoothed long, dark hair from her face. “My parents want to talk to me some more tonight about my mom’s treatment and we’re going out to dinner. We don’t have much food left in the house because we’re leaving soon.”
“Um, but can I come over later? I have something for you.”
“You do? What?”
“You’ll find out later.”
“Fine.” Willa harrumphed and stepped to the edge of the dock, throwing a teasing look over her shoulder. “Race you to the beach!” She dove off.
“Cheater!” Lee yelled right before Willa’s head hit the water.
Lee popped her head up over the sill of Willa’s bedroom window and scratched her nails on the screen. “Psst.”
Willa’s face appeared on the other side and she fumbled with the screen latch. “You can use the door, you know. My mom was expecting you.”
“This is more fun.” She levered her long limbs through the window. “Like I’m getting away with something.”
Willa rolled her eyes and opened her bedroom door. “Mom, Lee’s here. She came in through the window again. Just so you know.”
Lee flopped on Willa’s bed, hands behind her head and ankles crossed. “You’re no fun.”
“Pretty sure my mom is on the phone with your mom right now, so if you didn’t show up, someone was going to start to worry. You know how worked up all the parents get since last year.”
“Yeah, I know. Nothing’s like it was.”
Willa gestured for Lee to make room for her on the bed and stretched out next to her. “How was dinner?”
“Great,” Lee replied, knowing full well what she was asking. “We went to that build your own burger place with the fresh cut fries and thick shakes.”
Willa rolled her head toward her. “I meant with your parents.”
“It’s all fine, just more of the same. It was caught early; the chances of cure are good, long-term survival percentages and a whole bunch of medical jargon. Talking about it gives my mom the chance to make her favorite joke about how if she hadn’t gone gray early, she would now. Then my dad can chime in with, ‘Maybe when it grows back, the gray will be gone.’ It makes them laugh, though, so it’s okay.” Lee sighed. “Can we talk about something else?”
“Yeah.” Willa propped herself up on her arm and stared at her.
“What?” Lee feigned ignorance.
“You said you had something for me.”
“Oh, yeah, that.” She dug in her pocket, pulling out a small faux velvet bag. “It’s an early birthday gift.”
“My birthday isn’t until October.”
“I know. We’re three days apart, dummy. But I would’ve had to mail it, and um, sixteen is a big deal so I wanted to give it to you in person.”
Willa faced Lee and eased open the bag. She pulled out a delicate gold bracelet with a thin, gold bar. “It has my name,” she exclaimed.
“That’s why they call it an ID bracelet,” Lee teased, sitting cross-legged on the bed opposite Willa. “Turn it over.”
Willa whispered the inscription on the back. “Always, Lee.”
“Do you like it?” Lee watched Willa fiddle with it.
“I love it.” Willa met Lee’s gaze from beneath her lashes and held out her right wrist. “Help me put it on?”
Lee clasped the gold chain around Willa’s wrist, her fingertips lingering on the smooth skin of the inside of her arm just long enough to feel the tickly, swirling sensation begin in her belly. She cleared her throat and let her go. “How’s that?”
Willa stared at the bracelet. “I don’t have anything for you.”
“It’s okay. There’s nothing I need.”
Willa met her eyes and leaned toward her, their faces mere inches apart. “Is there anything you want?”
Lee’s eyes widened, her throat closing, barely able to swallow. “I, um…I…don’t…um…”
Willa closed the distance, placing a quick, gentle kiss on Lee’s lips before pulling away to look at her. “Was that, um, was that what you meant before?”
Lee could barely breathe. “Again,” she whispered.
Willa’s mouth hinted at a smile as she leaned in again.
Lee sucked in a breath at the feel of Willa’s lips against hers in their first kiss. The taste and feel of her made her head swim, her belly flip, and her heart pound so loudly she was sure Willa could hear it. She moved her lips against her gently and uncertainly, her hands clenched firmly in her lap.
The door banged open and they both nearly leapt from the bed, pulling away.
“What’s the 4-1-1?” Emily asked.
“Holy crap, Emily!” Willa shrieked at her sister. “Knock!”
Lee dropped back onto the bed, closing her eyes and covering her face with her hands to hide her flaming cheeks and rapid breathing.
“Why?” Emily wandered around Willa’s room touching everything within sight. “Were you doing something bad?”
Lee bolted upright. “No!”
“We were just talking about something important.” Willa waved her hand at her sister. “Get out, please.”
“As if.” Emily snorted, her eyes narrowing at Willa’s hand. “Ooh, what’s that?”
“Nothing.” Willa put her arm in her lap and covered her wrist with her other hand.
“Let me see.”
“If I show you, will you go away?”
“Sure.” Emily shrugged, eyes glinting. “Not.”
Willa held out her arm for her sister to inspect the bracelet. “Lee gave it to me for my birthday.”
“It’s pretty. Can I borrow it?”
“No. It has my name on it, anyway.”
“So? It’s not like anyone will notice.”
“You are a snob and a half,” Emily sneered.
“How many times have you watched Clueless, Em?” Lee laughed when she recognized the quote, attempting to break the sisterly tension.
“Too many,” Willa said.
“Fine.” Emily turned and scanned Willa’s room, her eyes sparkling mischievously. “I’m borrowing this then.” She snatched an old wooden case off Willa’s dresser and the contents rattled.
Willa shot off the bed, reaching for her. “No, you are not.”
Emily dodged out of the way, clutching the case to her chest, displaying the cover carved with the alphabet, the words yes, no, and goodbye, and numbers zero through nine. “Come on, let’s play with the witchboard.”
“All right, listen, Em.” Willa exhaled a breath. “That’s not what it’s called.”
Emily rolled her eyes dramatically. “I know, I know, a Ouija board.”
“First of all it’s Ouija, not ‘jee,’” Willa explained patiently. “Ouija is the trademarked name when it’s sold as a board game. That…” She pointed at the hand-carved, wooden case her sister was holding. “…is a spirit board Grandma bought me from an antique store in Germany, and it’s not something you play with. It’s not a toy, Em.”
Emily flipped the board around in her hands and started to open the case.
“Emily,” Lee said sternly. “Willa said no. Give it back.”
Emily’s face flushed at the admonishment. “Fine. I get it.” Emily handed it back carefully. “But you never let me try it with you.”
Willa’s expression softened. “Tomorrow, Em, okay?”
Her face lit up. “Really? You promise?”
“I promise. Now, can you leave us alone, please?”
“So, you and Lee can keep talking.” She exaggerated air quotes.
Lee blushed furiously, releasing a slow breath when Emily finally disappeared, closing the door behind her.
“Be happy you’re an only child,” Willa said, replacing the case on her dresser.
“She’s all right.” Lee laughed as the tension finally eased. “She just wants to be with you.”
“Be with you, more like. She would do anything you say.”
“I don’t know about that.” Lee nodded to the case on the dresser. “You really believe in all that stuff?”
“In ghosts?” Lee shrugged and shook her head. She hadn’t really given it much thought. “I’ve never seen one.”
“You’ve never seen gravity. You believe in that.”
“Of course.” Lee laughed. “I fall a lot. What kind of force does a ghost have?”
“I don’t know, but I still believe.”
Lee was both relieved their intimate moment had been interrupted and desperate to go back in time ten minutes and experience it all over again. “I should get home.”
“Wait. Don’t you want to, um, talk about before?”
“Nothing to talk about.” Lee slid open the screen.
“But…um…was it, I mean, was it okay?”
Lee bit down on the smile, threatening to split her face. “Yeah, it was okay, Will.”
“Okay. See you at the picnic?”
“Yep.” Lee hopped out the window and closed the screen behind her. “Mom’s making potato salad.”
“I love your mom’s potato salad. Good night, Lee.”
There was a trail through the woods between Finch Road where Willa lived and Wren Road that would get Lee home quickly, but she wasn’t quite ready to go home yet. She walked down the road toward the lake under more than enough light from porch lights, crackling yard campfires, and the high moon reflecting off the lake.
It was not so late yet that the domestic sounds of poorly insulated cabin life were silent. She could clearly hear the rumble of conversations, children laughing and crying, dishes clanking in sinks, and a rare television or radio as she made her way down the road.
She turned left to head toward her road and stopped short at a loud banging coming from the other direction. She paused and heard it again—the boathouse. This time it was accompanied by whispered laughter and frantic shushing.
Lee picked her way quietly down to the metal storage building sitting right at the waterline with its own small dock. Inside were canoes, sunfish sailboats, rigid inflatable boats, oars, life vests, paddles and other accessories for the community to use. The building and equipment were purchased and maintained through yearly community dues paid by the residents and the funds were managed by long-time residents, Sharon and Keith Danforth.
She peered inside and could clearly see David Osterhouse, the son of the wealthiest residents, with Harmony and Dawn Wilkins, the teenage daughters of the hippies who lived up on Swallow Road. They were all banging around carelessly trying to get a canoe off its rack.
Lee grinned, looking around for a machete-size stick, knowing she would be silhouetted in the entryway by the moonlight. She counted to three and stepped into the open bay doors brandishing the stick like a weapon and making her best Jason Voorhees sound effect. “Chichichichichichi hahahahahaha.”
If she had ever wondered what a blood-curdling scream sounded like, she didn’t any longer. The only reason the entire lake didn’t come running was David’s quick hand over Harmony’s mouth while Dawn froze in silent terror.
“Jesus, Lee,” David hissed. “You’re going to get us all in trouble.”
“Us all? I’m not the one trying to steal a boat.”
“We’re not stealing it,” Dawn shot back indignantly when she recovered. “We’re borrowing it.”
Lee flung the stick away. “How did you even get in here? Doesn’t Mrs. Danforth keep the key?”
“Who are you, the boat police?” Harmony accused. “I thought you hated Sharon Danforth.”
“I don’t hate anyone,” Lee huffed. “But, I don’t like her very much.”
“You and everyone else,” David grunted while hefting the canoe down. “The same everyones that know where she hides the spare key. There’s a plastic rock at your feet.”
Lee stepped to the side to let them out of the shed. David carried the boat awkwardly, and Dawn and Harmony followed with a paddle each. She toed over a suspicious-looking rock to see the compartment underneath. “Where are you going?”
“The other side,” Harmony trilled.
“Of the lake?” Lee blurted. “Why?”
“Because it’s creepy as hell and fun and I bet it’s haunted,” Dawn chimed in. “A girl died there last year, you know.”
“Shut up or you’re going to get us caught,” David warned, easing the canoe into the water from the dock with minimal metal squeaking.
He held the gunwale while the girls stepped into the boat, smothering laughter when it tipped and rocked, threatening to dump them all at the dock. “Wanna come, Lee?”
“Uh, no.” She stepped back from the edge. “Thanks, I gotta get home.”
“Lee’s scared,” Harmony whispered and pushed them off from the dock as they slipped their paddles into the inky water.
“Don’t tell,” Dawn whispered.
Lee watched them for a few moments before turning back to the road. She was almost past the Danforth’s house when the breeze picked up slightly, wafting the smell of cigarette smoke her way.
She slowed, looking around for the source, and she saw the tip glow orange when someone at the side of their house inhaled and stepped out from the shadow into the porch light. She jumped slightly at the sight of Keith Danforth. He was her dad’s age, she thought, but with a big belly. Her dad called it a ‘beer gut.’ He was also losing his hair.
“You’re out late, Lee,” he said, exhaling a stream of smoke into the night.
“Um…” Lee glanced at her watch. It was just past nine. “It’s not that late.”
He shrugged one shoulder and disappeared back into the shadows of the house, only the glow of the ember visible. “Safe walk home, then.”
She hurried the rest of the way.