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The Light in the Lake
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Twelve-year-old Addie should stay away from Maple Lake. After all, her twin brother, Amos, drowned there only a few months ago. But its crisp, clear water runs in Addie’s veins, and the notebook Amos left behind — filled with clues about a mysterious creature that lives in the lake’s inky-blue depths — keeps calling her back.
So despite her parents’ fears, Addie accepts a Young Scientist position studying the lake for the summer, promising she’ll stick to her job of measuring water pollution levels under adult supervision. Still, Addie can’t resist the secrets of Maple Lake. She enlists the lead researcher’s son, Tai, to help her investigate Amos’s clues. As they collect evidence, they also learn that Maple Lake is in trouble — and the source of the pollution might be close to home. Addie finds herself caught between the science she has always prized and the magic that brings her closer to her brother, and the choice she makes will change everything.
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School is all noise and lights—kids yelling, backpacks bumping. We have cinder block walls and metal doors so heavy they take forever to open, then clank shut too fast. Our lunchroom always smells like canned green beans. But I guess that’s the good thing about school. It keeps going the way it is, even when nothing else does.
I walk through the hall with my head down, my shoulder bumping Liza’s. She’s my cousin, and also my best friend. She doesn’t care how many times I bump her shoulder. Sometimes she touches her hand to my elbow, lightly steering me in the right direction.
Ten steps, I tell myself. Ten… nine… eight… I’ve been doing this a lot the past two months: staring at my feet, counting steps. I guess I just don’t like thinking about all the kids trying not to look at me, their eyes full of whispers. My method works pretty well, except one time I walked right into a little kindergartner who had found her way into the middle school wing somehow. There’s nine grades in this one building, and we’re supposed to watch out for the littlest kids.
We make it to science and I exhale, fast.
Mr. Dale always stands outside his classroom door and sticks his hand out for us to shake as we walk in. I didn’t think he’d keep that up past September, but it’s the end of the year now and he’s still going strong, pumping our hands up and down.
“Addie and Liza!” he says. “Welcome.”
“Nice SpongeBob tie,” Liza says; she’s looking at me, holding a laugh in. We’ve both tried to figure out if he ever repeats a tie, or if he really has as many ties as there are days of school. This SpongeBob one is new. And pretty dorky.
Mr. Dale just smiles. “I’m glad you have such good taste. My son picked it out; apparently it’s what all the Shoreland County preschoolers are wearing. Or wanting to wear.”
Since it’s almost the last week of school, most of the teachers have stopped giving us homework, but Mr. Dale’s been making us chart the phases of the moon since May and he says there’s no reason to stop before the full cycle’s over. I realize as soon as Liza and the other kids start fishing their charts out of their backpacks that I forgot to look at the moon last night.
As Mr. Dale moves around the room checking work, he pauses just for a second and taps my desk with one finger. When I look down, I see a little yellow Post-it stuck there with a message written on it: Deep breaths! Then there’s a smiley face with googly eyes, and his signature: Mr. D.
Teachers usually walk right by when I don’t turn my work in these days, and they don’t say anything. Mr. Dale is the only one who leaves little notes that make me feel like maybe someday I’ll be okay.
“Your sketches are looking good,” Mr. Dale tells the class. He picks Liza’s up and puts it under the document camera. On the board, her drawings slide into focus; I can tell she used the dark charcoal pencils she got for her birthday.
“Liza,” he says. “Could you please describe the moon you saw last night?”
“It’s still a crescent,” she says. “Smaller than two nights ago.”
“Great,” he says. “And why is it continuing to get smaller? It’s a—what kind of crescent?”
Waning, I think, just as Liza says it. Waning: getting smaller and smaller until there’s barely anything left. Liza’s perfect crescent shimmers in the thick charcoal defining her night sky.
“That’s kind of weird,” I say. My own voice surprises me; the words sounded better when they were just thoughts, but it’s too late to go back.
Mr. Dale nods, and I can tell it’s the kind of nod teachers do when they want to include you in the conversation but they’re not quite sure whether you’re going to help it or ruin it. “How so, Addie?”
“Um…” I stall. Mr. Dale waits while the other kids start to fidget. “When you talk about seeing the moon, you mean the silvery glowing part.”
“True,” Mr. Dale says.
“But when you draw it on white paper, you can’t actually draw that part.” I look at the smudges Liza’s charcoal pencils made. “You have to draw the dark part instead, and kind of use the dark part to show the light part.” The words tumble out faster than my brain can really think them through. “So you’re not actually drawing the moon. You’re drawing the shadow that covers it up bit by bit until it looks like it was never there at all.”
When I stop talking, the room’s so quiet I can hear the wind outside, rattling young birch leaves together. Liza’s just staring at me, her eyes big as full moons. The other kids stare too—kids I’ve known my whole life who have been trying really hard not to look at me since Amos died. Not wanting to look the wrong way, say the wrong thing. They don’t know there isn’t a right way. They might as well just look.
But Mr. Dale doesn’t seem surprised. He just nods. “An excellent point, Addie,” he says. “Scientifically and philosophically relevant. Darkness allows us to see light.”
Liza sticks her hand up. She knows I don’t like having all the focus on me, and she’s probably thinking fast, trying to help. “You can sort of see the dark part too,” she says. “I mean, it has a shape in the sky, if you really look.”
“Can anyone predict when that darkness will cover the whole moon?” Mr. Dale asks. “When do you think this crescent will completely disappear and give us a new moon?”
“How about never?” In the back corner of the room, Darren Andrews snickers. I roll my eyes. Amos was Darren’s friend—one of his only friends—since preschool.
When Darren was little, he’d get in trouble for spinning around in the teacher’s chair when she got up to check assignments, drumming on his desktop, tickling other kids during story hour. We’ve never been close, but he used to at least nod at me in the halls, before. Now he just looks away like everyone else.
Mr. Dale sighs. “Darren,” he says. “Let’s have a little more faith in the moon. It’s been around awhile. Anyone else?”
“A day?” someone asks.
“No way,” says Liza. “We’ve got longer than that.”
“Probably not much longer, though,” says Mr. Dale. “Keep watching at night. See how long it lasts.”
When class ends, Liza stays beside me instead of rushing out to the art room like she used to before Amos died. I zip my backpack—I know I’m taking too long, because Liza’s eyes keep darting toward the clock, even though she’d never tell me to hurry—and sling it over one shoulder as I get up to leave.
“Addie,” Mr. Dale says, pointing in my direction, “can I quickly touch base with you? I’ll write you a pass to art.”
I backtrack and stand next to his desk, waving Liza away. “I’ll look at the moon tonight,” I mumble in his direction. “I just sort of forgot last night. I—”
“It’s not that,” Mr. Dale says. “I’m just hoping you’re planning to apply for the Young Scientist position we talked about.”
I think of the crumpled Post-it note Mr. Dale put on my desk. Time to take that deep breath.
I missed a lot of school right after Amos died. So once I came back and Mr. Dale told me about the chance to spend this summer on Maple Lake, learning from scientists about how to study the water, I knew he was just trying to catch me up.
But I haven’t known exactly how to feel about Maple Lake. It used to be the place Amos and I both loved most. Now that he’s gone, it feels different. It’s a part of me that hurts to look at.
I won’t say I didn’t listen to Mr. Dale when he first mentioned the Young Scientist position. It’s just that everything anyone said that month sounded like it was underwater. All the words gurgled, hard to hear, and most of them drowned somewhere outside me. I just couldn’t hold on to them.
I look down at the papers scattered across his desk. “Um,” I say slowly. “I’ve been…”
“… thinking about it?” he asks.
“I kind of have, but—” I twist my backpack strap around my fingers.
“You should consider it.” Mr. Dale leans forward and shuffles the papers, then starts working through them with a pen. Maybe he knows I need some time to think.
As the Young Scientist, I would get to work at the biological station, a huge chunk of shoreline owned by the University of Vermont. Scientists go there to monitor water clarity and temperature, chart bird sightings, and study how cutting and using trees can keep the forest healthy. Amos and I used to play hide-and-seek on the nature trails there when we were younger.
“So… it’s an everyday thing?” I ask.
“You bet,” Mr. Dale says, still checking off papers. “The researchers are there five days a week, and so am I, now that I’m studying for my master’s. We’d like the Young Scientist to be there each weekday too.”
Mr. Dale knows I want to be an aquatic biologist someday. The one time I admitted it in homeroom, when we were supposed to talk about what we wanted to do when we grew up, most of the kids just stared.
But before I could figure out how to explain, Mr. Dale cut right through the silence and said that aquatic biologists can study not only the ocean, but freshwater lakes and rivers too, which is exactly what we have in Vermont, in between all the mountains.
“If you’re accepted,” Mr. Dale continues, looking up from his papers, “and everything goes well, you could join the Science Club next year, in seventh grade instead of eighth. We could make an exception.”
That sounds pretty good to me. Science Club members get to ride the bus to the high school once a week to do cool experiments with the freshman earth science class.
“What’s the project this summer?” I ask.
“We’re looking at pollution levels in the lake,” Mr. Dale says. He sets his stack of papers aside and folds his hands. “You could learn about testing water samples, entering data—”
“Pollution levels?” I feel my skin bristle. “Maple Lake’s not polluted. My dad says it’s the coldest, clearest lake in the state.”
“The water might look clear,” Mr. Dale says, “but it’s getting to the point where it isn’t actually as clean as it might seem. Not according to some preliminary observations. And we want to know why.” He looks right at me. “You’ve spent a lot of time on that lake.”
Tears sting my eyes. Most people don’t talk about Maple Lake with me anymore.
“It can’t be easy,” he says, his voice soft. “With… everything that happened.”
I look up. Say it, I think. Just say it. Nobody ever says it.
As though he hears me thinking, Mr. Dale clears his throat. “With Amos,” he says. “With your brother.”
Hearing Mr. Dale say his name helps somehow. It’s like the room had swelled to the point of bursting, a too-full balloon, and his name popped it. Everything settles, calms.
“I don’t want to presume, Addie,” Mr. Dale continues. “Working at the lake might not sound like the best idea to you. I just…” He trails off, looks up at the ceiling.
I clench the Post-it note so hard my fingernails dig into my palm. He’s right, in a way. But the strange thing is—not working at the lake doesn’t sound easy either.
Mr. Dale turns his palms up and shrugs. “Okay, look. I loved science when I was your age,” he says. “When I became a teacher, I promised myself that if any of my students got as excited about it as I did, I’d help them out as much as I could. And this chance to study the lake seemed like an opportunity I should tell you about.”
That’s when I know for sure I really do miss Maple Lake. I feel it deep down, like water feels the wind pushing up waves. Mama and Dad and I haven’t been there since before. But I don’t think Amos would like it if I stayed away forever. And I realize now, I don’t want to.
“If you applied, I think it could work out well,” Mr. Dale says. “Scientifically speaking, you’re a very strong candidate. You ask questions. And you think about things in different ways, like what you said about drawing the moon. Those are good qualities for a scientist to have.”
I stand up a little straighter. “Thanks.”
“Take this home,” Mr. Dale says, handing me an application. “Talk about it with your parents. See what they say.”
“I don’t need to talk to them about it.” I feel something inside pulling me toward Maple Lake now, even though it’s the last place most people would expect me to go. “I’ll apply.”
Liza and I line up for the bus together, arms linked, like always. I didn’t tell her about the Young Scientist position at lunch or study hall. Not yet.
Liza was born just a couple of months before Amos and me. Sometimes Aunt Mary and Mama called us the triplets, and even though it wasn’t technically true, it didn’t quite feel wrong either. A lot of times I can tell what Liza’s feeling, even when she’s not saying a thing.
Like right now, I know she’s thinking hard. Worried. She’s chewing the side of her lip like she does when she’s working on one of her sketches and thinks she messed it up but doesn’t know how to fix it. She pulls me a little closer.
“Want to come over today?” she asks, quietly enough that nobody else can hear.
Amos and I used to go over to Liza’s a lot after school. Her bus stop came before ours and Aunt Mary was always home by the time we got there, so if we knew Mama needed to sleep before work or Dad was still on a job site, it made sense. But I haven’t been going over as much lately. Not since Amos died.
I wish I could explain this to Liza, but I don’t even know if I can really understand it myself. Shouldn’t I want to hang out with my cousin, the only other person who knew Amos close to as well as I did? The only person who wouldn’t just stare at me with big, scared eyes if I started crying out of nowhere, or accidentally talking about Amos like he was still there?
“Um, I can’t today.” The words feel sharp, even though I don’t mean them to be. “I have homework, and I think I need to start dinner because Mama’s working…” The rest of the sentence wanders away. I don’t need to look at Liza to know she’s trying to look like everything’s okay, like whatever I want is fine.
“No worries,” she says. Our bus is pulling up, and Liza lets go of my arm as the doors heave open. My chest aches.
“Hi there, girls,” Barbara Ann says from the driver’s seat. “All aboard!” She takes one hand off the steering wheel to motion us up the steps, then winks one blue-shadowed eye.
Barbara Ann’s one of Mama’s best school friends and even babysat Amos and me sometimes when Aunt Mary couldn’t, so I think I know her pretty well. I know you can count on her for a few things. Number one: frizzy brown hair that sticks out in places. She never pulls it back; it just falls all around her shoulders like milkweed fluff. Number two: bright red lipstick. Number three: gum, usually watermelon-flavored, and usually snapped between her teeth while she’s talking, which she does a lot.
Snap. I guess there’s a number four: the good mood. Barbara Ann really doesn’t stop smiling, which comes in handy on days when I don’t have the energy to do it myself. It reminds me of being little, learning to ride a two-wheeler: Mama would give me a little push on the back of the seat to get me started. Barbara Ann’s smiles feel just like that.
“Hey, Barbara Ann,” I say. And I make my lips go up at the corners.
She grabs my wrist. “Wait a second,” she says. “Isn’t tomorrow—”
“Yeah, I’ll be twelve,” I say. “Saturday. Guess I got lucky.” The words taste sour. Pretending to be happy about a weekend birthday with no school seems stupid this year, but it also feels like a normal thing to say.
The nice thing about Barbara Ann’s smiles is they aren’t fake. When her lips kind of roll together, like they have to press hard to keep something else out, I can tell she’s thinking about Amos and how he’ll never be twelve. But her smile’s still real. She looks right at me too, which is something people sometimes seem scared to do when they remember about Amos.
“You have a good birthday tomorrow, honey,” she says. Then she reaches in her shirt pocket, pulls something out, and presses it into my hand.
“Found this,” she whispers. “An early present. Keep it safe.” I walk toward the back of the bus and find my seat by Liza just as Barbara Ann shifts into gear and we roll away.
“What did she give you?” Liza leans over, trying to catch a glimpse of my hand.
“I don’t know.” The thing, whatever it is, is smooth, curved, with a sharp point. I don’t want to open my hand, though. When I realize I’m waiting for Amos to come so he can see whatever it is too, tears start and I have to blink hard. Liza hooks her hand through the crook of my elbow, pulls me a little closer on the seat.
I picture Amos across the aisle, leaning over for a closer look. “Open it!” he’d whisper, loudly enough for me to know he meant it. But of course if he were here, he’d probably have one too. He would already know what it was because he never would have been able to wait.
I let my fingers open and there it is: white, quarter-moon-shaped. Perfect.
“A tooth?” Liza’s nose wrinkles. “Has Barbara Ann completely lost it?”
“It’s a white whale tooth.” I would know one anywhere; Amos and I love—loved—to collect them. Over ten thousand years ago, the Atlantic Ocean flooded over land pressed low by glaciers, and white whales swam right through it. Only when the land rose back up, filling with fresh water draining off the mountains, did the whales go away. Even so, they left evidence of themselves: one of their skeletons turned up in a farmer’s field over in Charlotte a long time ago, and now it’s our state fossil. “But it’s a really big one. Huge, actually. Almost—” I stop.
“Nothing.” I shake my head. There are some things I don’t want to tell even Liza. Like how if Amos were here, he’d say there was no way a white whale could have this big a tooth, that it had to come from somewhere—something—else. Like the creature, swimming through the deepest parts of Maple Lake.
It wasn’t really like Amos to keep secrets, but I know he didn’t say anything about the creature to anyone else, not even Liza. He wanted to prove it first. “You’re a scientist, Ad,” he said. “You can help.”
But I didn’t believe him.
Liza shifts in her seat and clears her throat, a sure sign she’s changing the subject to something brighter, something that won’t make my eyes blur and sting.
“So, have you thought about the calf at all?” she asks. “Dad said I should double-check, be sure you still wanted to.” She twists her fingers together, waiting for me to say something back. I slip the tooth into my pocket and nod.
Liza always raises a calf as a 4-H project to bring to the Shoreland County Fair. Aunt Mary and her husband, my uncle Mark, have a dairy farm, so every spring Liza has plenty of calves to choose from. This year, a month or so after Amos died, she asked if I wanted to help her take care of a calf and learn how to show it in the ring. She even said I could pick out whichever one I liked best, that she’d wait until I had the chance to come over. She knew I loved the calves, with their big brown eyes and their knobby knees and their tails flicking flies.
After Amos died, so much just stopped in its tracks. But the calves were born, just like they were always going to be. And the fair would still happen. And now, even though it feels weird to keep doing things, even though my stomach spins just thinking about it, I hear myself saying “I’m in.”
“Good,” she says. “You’ll already be around anyway, right?”
Amos and I didn’t just go to Liza’s after school; we spent a lot of time there in the summer too. When we were little, it was so Aunt Mary could babysit us. But as we got older, it became our job to watch Liza’s little sisters so Aunt Mary could work more around the farm with Uncle Mark.
“Sure I will.” But I remember what Mr. Dale said too, about going to the biological station every day. If I get to be the Young Scientist, I’ll need to explain to Liza that even though I can still help with the calf, I won’t be able to come as often as she thinks, or stay as long.
Maybe I should tell her about the position right now. I usually tell her everything. “Actually,” I say, “there’s this thing—”
Liza’s eyes get wide, swollen with worry. I know this look. It’s the same one she gave me when Amos and I both got bronchitis right before the sixth-grade Spring Fling and I told her, hacking into my elbow when she knocked on my door, that we couldn’t go with her after all. It’s hard to look at someone’s face and see all this hope shining… and then just snuff it out.
“Never mind,” I say. “I thought I might need to help my parents out at home, but I don’t think I will after all.”
“Good,” Liza says, and rests her cheek on my shoulder. I tip my head to lean against hers and her brown curls tickle my forehead.
“I’m glad you’ll be able to hang out,” she says. “It’ll just be—lonely this summer, otherwise. If you’re not there.”
I don’t understand how Liza could feel lonely in a house with three sisters. I think about just saying that out loud—I kind of want to—but I hold back and point to the sketchbook on her lap instead. She carries it everywhere. “Can I take a look?” I ask.
“Not yet,” she says. “I’ve been working on most of it at home anyway. Maybe when you come over tomorrow, you can see some sketches. I’m entering the Shoreland Art Show this year and I have a whole portfolio I need to put together.”
I feel my eyebrows shooting up before I really want them to. It’s not that Liza isn’t talented, but the Shoreland Art Show is kind of a big deal.
“Yeah, I know,” Liza says, reading my mind as usual. “Not likely.”
“I didn’t say that.” I don’t want Liza to think I don’t believe in her. I do. But I also know kids from all over the state enter. “Do they have a separate category for middle school?”
Liza shakes her head. “Whatever I enter is going to get thrown right in with the high school kids’ stuff,” she says. “I’ll be at the very bottom of the youngest age bracket. I could use some advice on my entry.”
“You can do it,” I say. “I’ll help if I can.”
I mean it too. The last person who asked me for help was Amos, and I wish I had done more.
I remember when he came back from Teddy’s store that first Saturday in March, his bike tires slicing through soft leftover snow. I can’t believe it was only three months ago now, one of those days that felt like spring but wasn’t. The sun shone so bright, it made us all think winter might end early. We had nearly a week of those days. Too many, I know now. The sun that beat on our shoulders and peeled off our coats turned the lake ice weak, brought pockets of melt up to the surface, daring it to crack.
But that day, just about a week before he left me forever, Amos hopped off his bike and let it tip over. He reached toward me, holding a notebook, the kind you can buy for fifty cents at Teddy’s, with a cover that flips up and folds back. Small enough to fit in my pocket.
“What’s it for?” I asked. But I kept my hands knotted behind my back.
He leaned in. “Keeping track of the creature.” Barely a whisper. “Remember?”
And I laughed. Not in a mean way, but still.
“There’s no creature,” I said. “Besides, why are you whispering?”
Amos looked over his shoulder as though spies were hiding in the woods past our house. “I just don’t want anyone else to know but you and me,” he said. “Not yet. Not until I prove it for sure. So that means I need to keep researching. We need to.”
If there really were a magical creature down there in the lake, old as glaciers, moving dark and cold, Amos would be the one to find it. But I didn’t believe it existed. There couldn’t be any real evidence for something like that, and I told Amos so.
“C’mon, Addie,” he said, his eyes soft. Hurt. “You’ll see. I’ve been writing clues down since last fall.” He patted his back pocket, where another line of silver coils stuck out.
“Clues about a creature,” I repeated. “That doesn’t sound very scientific. If you ever wanted to prove it, you’d need actual evidence.”
He shook the notebook a little, urging me to take it. “Maybe you could find some of your own,” he said. “You could try.”
Finally I untwisted my hands and took what he offered and stuck it in my pocket. But not because I actually believed.
I think I did it because of his eyes. They usually glittered, like sun on cedar leaves, and I didn’t like the look of them clouded over, all the hope of working together sucked away. So I held out my hand and the sun came back out. Just like that.
Praise for The Light in the Lake:
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers