Forrester slides the key into the lock, turning it halfway before his hand stills.
“Sorry if the air’s a bit stale,” he says, his fingers jerking the lock the rest of the way. He twists the knob and pushes the back door open. “We haven’t been here in a few weeks. We were supposed to come up last weekend, but …” He stops again, his knuckles pressed white against his keys.
I guess I should be concerned about the way his sentence remains unfinished, but try as I might, I can’t get my eyes to stop staring at his skin. Squeezed so tight, his fingers are literally white. Pure white. As opposed to his usual tone, which is more tanned — but still white.
So many shades of the same damn color. We should have better names for these things. Forrester is a sun-boy, golden brown and toasty. And then there’s someone like Allison, her skin pink, half with zits and half from natural blush. But they’re still white. And the best part is, my skin is a mere notch darker than Forrester’s, but he is white, and I am not.
Shit. Looks like I’ve now become the kind of person who refers to others as white kids.
Last week I didn’t notice my cousins’ varying complexions. But now the lightness of their skin shines like a constellation of my past. I spent my whole life believing I was the same as them, but as soon as I saw everyone crowded around the fire this morning, the difference between my being and theirs struck hard. If I’d come here a year ago, I wouldn’t have paid any heed to Forrester’s fingers, except to examine his tight-fisted grip. Ten months can change a life, I guess. In January I fought with my mother, and now here I am in October, identifying myself as a Cree girl and forgetting all about my half-Caucasian blood.
Guilt pools beneath my pores, but I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I’m acting like these people aren’t my family, when I used to love them more than my own siblings. Or perhaps it’s because I made a conscious effort to ignore our differences when we were children, and now I have the hindsight to realize I did so at the expense of my own identity.
Or perhaps it’s because Forrester is standing beside me remembering his dad, and I’m being a bitch obsessing about the color of his hand.
“Wow, this place hasn’t changed a bit,” Thomas says, stepping across the threshold and saving the moment. Thank the stars twice for Thomas. At least he’s able to think about someone other than himself.
“It’s pretty much the exact same,” I agree.
The words are out of my mouth before I walk into the main room and look around to discover they are true. The inside of the cottage hasn’t changed. Like, at all. The expansive main floor has the same layout, most of the space an open rectangle with a sunken square designated as the living room. Within the square, the same blue flower-patterned couch and brown recliner chair are positioned around the same ornate coffee table.
F%#ing hell. Ten years, and not even the position of the furniture has been altered.
“Seriously, ever heard of redecorating?” Thomas teases, grinning as he explores the main floor.
The high wood-slat ceilings reach up past the upper balcony, two windows in the slanted roof letting in streams of bright sunlight. The one thing memory does injustice to is the size of this place. My experience has been that you tend to remember things huge, only to grow up and find them tiny. But I remembered this place cozy, and turns out it’s massive — not even small enough to be a true cottage.
Nope. This sucker’s a house, and damn, Forrester’s going to get a pretty penny once this goes up for sale. Too bad he’ll never be able to afford it again. The value of this place has got to be ten times what it was bought for back in … whenever the hell it was bought.
“It’s perfect, just what a good cottage should be,” Kayla says, defending the old charm of this place. She’s right, and we all know it — even Thomas.
I walk past the living room and make it across to the adjoining kitchen, the green countertops and light oak cabinets so familiar they make me remember bowls of cereal eaten at the round oak table, our parents moaning about their need for the coffee brewing in the ancient, stained pot.
I was excited to come back here, but I didn’t expect to be barraged with mundane memories that are still somehow stupidly charming. As a kid, I never cared much about this place. Growing up, I believed camping was for people too poor to afford a hotel, a conviction I held thanks to the incessant complaints of my mother as we drove up here on early summer mornings. Because, indoor plumbing and hot showers aside, this cottage always felt like one step away from camping. I hated the muddy floors, the wet towels and dripping bathing suits hanging out to dry in the sun. But it looks like I can’t help remembering even those irksome traits with fondness now.
I turn back to face the living room again. Thomas is halfway up the stairs, and Nolan’s thrown himself onto the couch. The dogs continue their play despite the more constrained space, and Forrester watches them, momentarily distracted by their antics. Eli stands by the back windows looking out over the bay, and Allison walks in circles, staring up at the windows in the ceiling. Kayla’s watching the others, like I am. Our eyes meet across the room as she raises her black-framed sunglasses, placing them on her head like a headband.
“Okay, first things first,” I say, shifting my gaze back to Nolan. “Rule for the next two days is no phones.”
“What?” Nolan’s head snaps up, and I quirk a brow, daring him to argue with my declaration.
He’s in constant conversation with either a dozen interesting people or a single spectacular one. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Nolan had a girlfriend. He’s cute, with his unruly hair, clear blue-green eyes, and full lips. He’s about six feet tall, and he’s skinny, which makes him appear even taller. Plus, going by the look he’s now giving me, I’d say he’s got “broody-but-sweet” down pat. He’s a fine catch, looks-wise. I’d vouch for his personality, too, if I could. But I don’t know him well enough anymore. When he was five or six, he used to be a hellish little brat, collecting bugs and sneaking them into our sleeping bags when we weren’t looking. He had an especial love of terrorizing Allison, who nearly fainted whenever an insect came too close.
I hope his manners have improved.
“We came here to help Forrester,” I remind him.
“Give it up, Nolan,” Thomas says, swooping down the stairs and into the sunken portion of the living room to snatch the phone from Nolan’s hand. “Hailey’s right. A bit of sun, the bay, and the exciting prospect of cleaning an entire cottage. Who could ask for more? We don’t need you staring at your phone all weekend.”
Thomas gives his brother a knowing look, and Nolan glares in return.
“Let me say goodbye,” he mumbles, reaching for the phone again.
“Oh, I can do that for you,” Thomas replies.
Nolan stands, and even though his body is the same height as his brother’s, he seems in that moment a few imposing inches taller.
“Don’t,” he says in a fierce, panicked voice.
I’m about ready to burst out laughing. A new girlfriend, or maybe just a crush. I remember being overprotective of my phone with my first boyfriend or two, when Marissa threatened to send embarrassing, inappropriate texts the moment I left it unguarded. I can see the same tension between Thomas and Nolan now, and for once my sympathies side with the younger sibling.
All my goodwill dissipates when I glance back at Kayla, though. Across the room, her flawless, made-up face now sports a worried expression as she stares at the screen of her own phone.
“Oh, give me a break,” I groan. One cousin obsessed with his phone I can handle. But for some reason, two pisses me off. “Don’t tell me we’re all incapable of going twenty-four fucking hours without being online?”
“What?” Kayla startles, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. She stares up at me, her eyes guilty like she’s just been caught doing something indiscreet. “N-no, I was just making sure —”
“Geez, Hailey, let the girl look at her phone,” Allison mutters, interrupting Kayla’s stuttering explanation.
I roll my eyes, clenching my jaw to keep from a further outburst as Kayla sneaks a final look at her screen. When she finally shoves the device into the front pocket of her overnight bag, I let my facial muscles relax.
“It’s not a problem,” she says, her glossy lips pursed with concern. “I was just hoping Hudson would — but never mind. It’s fine.”
“Good,” I say, smoothing my voice into a gentler tone. I’m curious to know who Hudson is, but Kayla drops her eyes, her fingers nervously sweeping back strands of honeyed hair like she’s afraid to draw any more attention. I didn’t think my remark would make her so flustered. She’s like a chastised puppy — I’ve seen the same wounded look in Star’s eyes after we catch her going through the trash, when she tries to worm her way out of punishment by showing us just how damn cute she can be.
I weigh the pros and cons of apologizing for making my cousin so uncomfortable. But with the momentary drama of Kayla’s phone over, Nolan distracts everyone by resuming the fight for his own device.
“Thomas,” he pleads.
While the brothers continue their standoff, the rest of us fish out our phones and hand them to Kayla to add to her bag.
“Oh, fine,” Thomas sighs at last.
He hands back the phone, and relief floods Nolan’s face as his fingers glide over the keypad, his message compiled and sent off in a matter of seconds. Then he locks his phone and passes it to Kayla before slinking back to the couch.
“Now that’s settled,” Thomas continues, giving his brother a warning gaze, “where should we start the cleanup? Docks, woods …”
“I was thinking the rooms upstairs,” Forrester says, running a shaky hand through his brown-blond hair. “There are four rooms. I’ll take my dad’s, and you can split up the rest.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I ask.
Forrester waves away my concern. “Yeah. I … I need to do this, and I don’t want anyone else going through his things, you know?”
“That’s fair,” Eli says, glancing toward the upper balcony. He sounds bored. He obviously didn’t want to come this weekend, and he’s doing fuck all to hide his displeasure. If it weren’t for Allison, I doubt he’d spare us a thought as he lounged at home or did whatever the hell it is he does in his normal life. “Let’s get started.”
Unlike the kitchen and the worn living room furnishings, the cottage’s upper floor doesn’t make me a nostalgic sap. As a kid, I rarely went up this far. Everything I needed was contained within the lower levels. I slept, played board games, or watched movies in the basement rec room. I bathed in the basement bathroom, ate in the kitchen, and spent the rest of the time outside. The upstairs was for the parents. I only ventured up if I needed to find my mother or my dad, and even then I would only ascend after one of my aunts told me to stop yelling for them from the bottom of the staircase.
Now, we go upstairs together and thin out as we pick our rooms. I end up with Allison in one of the guest rooms, which has clearly not been used as a guest room for a long time.
“Look at this place,” Allison says, gathering her blond hair into a ponytail before she gets to work. “It’s like a massive junk pile.”
She ain’t kidding. I approach the bed — now acting as a giant shelf for dozens of small boxes, uneven stacks of papers, pieces of clothing, and other assorted bits of crap — and wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. Tidying knick-knacks and doing a bit of dusting and sweeping was a given for this weekend. But I wasn’t expecting a mess like this, and it’s obvious Allison wasn’t, either. I can’t fathom what Forrester would have done if he’d come up here by himself.
“Where should we start?” I ask, surveying the clutter.
“Let’s begin with the boxes,” Allison suggests, motioning not toward the boxes on the bed but to a stack of boxes pushed against one corner of the wall. “We can organize them, empty some of them, and use the empty ones for other stuff later.”
“Whatever you say.”
I give her a salute, and then stare at the disaster awaiting me. I hate organizing. But I can see Allison’s reasoning. Aside from throwing everything into the trash — which doesn’t seem like a bad option — there’s no other way to conquer this mess.
We start by pulling box after box down from the stack. None of the boxes are sealed, which makes it easy to open the flaps and see what’s inside. Most of what we find is work-related, old receipts and invoices for the construction company our uncle operated. Some of these are recent, so we keep them, shuffling the papers until they resemble something like a neat stack before sticking them back into one of the boxes. But some of the papers are old — like, decades old.
“I think we can toss these,” Allison says, her button nose crinkled as she tries to read the faded scrawl of one slip. “Some of them aren’t even legible anymore.”
“I didn’t realize Simon was like this,” I say, looking at a handwritten invoice from 1995. “I guess I never thought about him as a businessman much.”
“Neither did I,” Allison agrees. “Do you remember the Christmas we spent here? Our van almost didn’t make it through the snow. We got stuck down off the main road, and Uncle Simon, Uncle Jake, and your dad had to help dig us out. That’s how I remember him. Digging snow out from under our tires and laughing while my dad cursed a blue streak.”
“I remember my mother freaking out because she thought we were playing too close to the water that year.” I smirk. She probably had good reason for it, even if we did think she was a ravenhaired witch at the time. We complained that she was ruining our fun, and then we spent the remainder of the night building a giant snowman off the back porch instead.
Like the memories of cereal bowls down in the kitchen, new recollections now bob to the surface. I can picture Kayla planning the snowman’s face while the rest of us rolled the body, Forrester refusing to wear gloves because he thought they hindered his ability to pack snow. Dirt and sand have never been interests of mine, but snow and ice are another story. Christmas at this cottage is where the stars shine in my memory.
“And I remember drinking hot chocolate while our dads dragged in a giant tree they’d cut from the forest,” I add with a grin.
“We decorated it with popcorn and cranberries,” Allison says, nodding. “Because we didn’t have any actual decorations. Kayla’s mom told us it was more authentic that way, but Thomas kept whining because he’d left his favorite decoration on the tree at home.”
“Batman, wasn’t it?” I ask.
“I think so.” Allison laughs. “He was obsessed with Batman.”
We both smile until the glimmering recollections dissolve into the piles of junk around us. I pick up another old receipt and stare at my dead uncle’s signature near the bottom.
“Like I said, that’s how I remember him,” Allison mumbles. “Not like this — nothing like this.”
“Do you know anything about why they stopped talking?” I ask.
Allison doesn’t respond. When I glance up at her, she’s shaking her head.
“No. I didn’t even know it was everyone. I never stopped to think about it, really.”
“Me neither,” I admit. “But it’s not just some fucked-up nostalgia trip, is it? We were close back then. I remember the whole family being close.”
“You’re not imagining it,” Allison says. She goes back to sorting through papers. “At least, I don’t think you are. But obviously something happened. I asked my dad about it, after the funeral. He didn’t say much.”
“Mine told me there was a fight, but that’s pretty much it.”
“That’s what Dad told Eli and me, too,” Allison scoffs. “Kind of a no-brainer. But he wouldn’t tell us about what. He and Eli got into it, they’re so similar, so stubborn.”
She pauses like she’s on the verge of saying more, but then she stops, focusing on her handful of papers instead.
I’m curious about her tense expression, but I’m not yet ready to pry. If I were in this room with Kayla, or Thomas, or even Nolan or Forrester, I wouldn’t hesitate shoving myself into their personal thoughts. I’m not shy, and I firmly believe if people want something to remain hidden they shouldn’t go around being so damn obvious they’re keeping a secret. But as little as I know any of the people in this cottage, the twins are the only ones to feel like actual strangers. And out of the two of them, Eli was always more blunt and imposing, so even he has an edge over his sister.
To think I’ve let someone so close fade so far. Allison didn’t make much of a lasting impression on my memory, I guess. She was around as much as everybody else, but of all my cousins, she’s the one I’ve always thought of the least. I’m used to being called a bitch. But I never suspected my selfish tendencies extended all the way back to childhood.
“You think anyone else knows anything?” I ask, shoving those revelations away for another time.
Allison doesn’t answer my question. So we continue sorting in silence, the sounds of ruffled papers our main source of company.
“Hey, everyone,” Kayla calls some time later, her voice echoing out from one of the other rooms. The sound makes me jump, and I roll my eyes at my skittish nerves. “Come and look at this.”
I glance at Allison. She shrugs, and I follow suit before dropping my current handful of receipts and walking out of the room.