Girls Enter the Lake

The three teenage girls are inside a summer cottage in Michigan, wearing flimsy bathing suits. They are already tan and settled into the beach house routine: skinny dipping and bonfires by night, sunning their thirteen year old bodies by day.

It stormed this morning, so the three vacationing teenage friends are sprawled on red striped couches, reading Harry Potter. On the wall facing them is a wooden Chinese Checker board; it hangs next to repeating windows and doors. When they look up from their books, they see the wide expanse of beach 50 steps below their cozy perch.

Raspberries and ivy grow along the sand under the steps, where the dog Buck digs and rolls on his back. It's a wild berry-and-tick farm, and the mother habitually checks his ears as she pets him.

The day is sunning up and big waves beckon to three restless teenage girls like an urgent party invitation, like a rhythmic, musical gesture.

The three beautiful teenage girls wait until the mother of the house leaves for the fruit stand in South Haven to buy strawberries. They break new rafts out of their boxes. These are big rafts, with arm rests. The three athletic teenage girls drag the rafts 30 or 50 or 80 steps down to the beach and blow them up, or blow them up and drag them down the steps.

This detail, like other details in the story, is unclear.

The three daring teenage girls enter the lake, haul the rafts far beyond the sandbars, which are far from shore. They want to get past the choppy waves to loll and float uninterrupted. The three clueless teenage girls pass the sandbars and relax on their backs in the summer heat. They decide to close their eyes, to shut out the sun. The lake laps lightly at their sides, not like the thirsty dog Buck, but like a kitten licking milk from a bowl. Delicately.

They are out past the waves and can drift undisturbed, so they peacefully drift. They gossip. They think thirteen year old thoughts about the older boys at the house down the beach in Sleepy Hollow, about the unplumbed mysteries of sex, about manicures and pedicures and hot designer clothes. About curfews and high school and whether high-top or low-top Converse All-Stars are best.

While visions of glittered shirts float through their heads, the three teenage girls don't notice they're racing on a riptide. Three listless teenage girls see no, hear no, speak no evil, when just miles to the south, a wading 12-year-old at Warren Dunes is pulled into the deep.

Their senses go dull in a blue blur of water and sky. The lake rocks them in a liquid trance. Three sleepy teenage girls are overtaken by quiet. The squeals and splashes of children in the shallows fade; the murmurs of mothers in the sand dissipate. No motors are puttering by.

When three languid teenage girls open their eyes and salute the sun to ward off the late-morning glare, they don't gaze south across the lake, to where rescuers flounder at Warren Dunes beach.

They study their toes.

They don't see Ismael Gonzalez, 27, go down with the tides. They don't watch Marcos Reynoso, 25, hit the waves. They don't know Rolando Rodriguez, 15, has sunk into the depths.

Three oblivious but voluptuous teenage girls don't hear the roar of boats from St. Joseph's coast guard. They aren't listening, even, to the gulls overhead. They look east, toward the shore, where the beach house is lost, a tinker toy swallowed in a tangle of green.

They pull down their straps; they check their tan lines.

When one hearty but reckless teenage girl slides off her raft and says, "We're pretty far out; I'm going to go tell my mom," the other two teenage girls don't think to say, "No, just stay." They don't say, "Take your raft." They don't slip in the water and say, "We'll come, too." They don't think they're in danger; they lay back and wait.

While one muscular teenage girl struggles toward shore, two cat-like teenage girls stretch out once more, and plunge deep into their swirling teen thoughts, from Harry Potter and scented candles to pot and to sex.

As two teenage girls dive back into their watery daze, and one keeps crawling home, Randall Farmer, 44, is sucked under at Bethany Beach. When the one flailing teenage girl shouts back to her friends, "Stay put," they don't hear her cries.

They dribble handfuls of water over blistering thighs.

By the time the two sun-deaf teenage girls finally wonder why their friend isn't back, Mark Weiss, 59, falls victim to the tides of Harbert shore.

They don't hear Buck bark.

As several older women on land see that first gasping, reeling, teenage girl stagger across the sand bar, and they dive in to help her out, Judith and Bruce Chapman, 66 and 57, go down at Cherry Beach to the south.

It's just a day at the lake, like hundreds before. These three totally cool teenage girls live on Big Michigan's other shore, where it's milder in spring and warmer in fall. They spend summers at the beach, but riptides and currents and tricky undertows don't invade their teenage minds. Today's nutcrackers claim their brains: rock stars in low-rise jeans dance through their heads.

Yet the two remaining stranded teenage girls decide to kick home. They position their rafts to each side of the abandoned third float. Their arms and legs are paddles, trying to gain shore. Two strong teenage girls use basketball- and soccer-honed limbs, kick and pull, pull and kick.

And they drift further out.

As the summer house mother returns from the market, she peeks out the window. Colored rafts catch her eye. They're far, far, too far out. Who could be so foolish to float out that far? Now panicked, she leaps down to the beach -- 80 or 90 or 110 steps. Her daughter runs toward her; she's giddy with relief.

By the time the mom hugs her daughter (that first teenage girl) and someone calls the sheriff (boat zipping swiftly from South Haven's pier) a man on a JetSki motors out to the rafts.

"Those aren't our girls?" the mother now asks. The answer is yes the answer she dreads.

As the second teenage girl mounts the JetSki, rides double to shore, the lake's killed more swimmers than she'll take in most years.

It's not until the JetSki gets the last teenage girl, until three coast guard units respond, that the second naive teenage girl looks out from shore. She sees rafts and her friend a remote speck in the drink. That unimaginable distance, that's where they were. It's the moment she finally tastes something like fear.

She says to the mother, "I was not scared at all."

And thinks to herself, "I was so fucking scared."

After each coast guard station knows each girl is safe, after lifeguards in motorboats recover the rafts, the summer house mother gets one last phone call.

"You can come get your rafts. We've got them right here."

The dog Buck wags his tail, taunts her with a neon green ball.

Three sneaky teenage girls bounce back; they're angling for the next adventure, or disaster, or both. The scantily clad girls enter the kitchen, track sand across the floorboards. "Can we have a sleepover tonight with the boys down the beach?"

The summer house mother knows no more than the girls; she won't hear of the drownings 'til the next morning comes. Still she smiles at them and ponders: What goes on in those heads? Will they ever let me rest? Will I see 48?

"No, thank you," she says.

To the girls.

To the boys.

To the rafts.

To the lake.

About the author:

Gail Louise Siegel's work has appeared or will soon be in Post Road, StoryQuarterly, Salamander, edificeWRECKED, The North Dakota Quarterly, Ink Pot, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, Brevity, Flashquake, Outsider Ink, 3am Magazine, The Salt River Review, Tattoo Highway, The God Particle, Literary Potpourri, Night Train, Quick Fiction, FRiGG and LOST ON PURPOSE, an anthology from Seal Press (Feb, 2005).