Family Vacation

Four men, shirtless or in black, neoprene wetsuits, stood chest-deep in the water, assembling the last segments of a dock that reached out into the shallow lake.

Four men, shirtless or in black neoprene wetsuits, stood chest-deep in the water, assembling the last segments of a dock that reached out into the shallow lake. I glanced over at them from the beach where I stood, a snow shovel in my hands, which I was using to push goose shit into a pile along with sun-bleached driftwood and seaweed. The men talked and laughed, their words jumbled across the distance, lost amongst the sounds of waves hitting the shore and outboard motors chopping through the water.

It was unusually hot, like someone had sliced three days from the middle of August and dropped them in the beginning of June. The shallow water, clear enough to see the ripples of sand on the lakebed below, was warm and teeming with schools of minnows clustering just offshore. Mallards floated on the waves with no particular destination and geese led their goslings single file to any beach or lawn without people on it.

Maryam struggled with the sliding door of the cottage, first not noticing the dowel placed in the sill as an extra security measure, then, having removed it, with how stiff the door was, how resistant it seemed to the idea of being opened. She, in her shalwar kameez as green as the leaves on the trees around us, stepped onto the brown, peeling boards of the deck and shielded her eyes from the sun.

“Ammi is heating up the biryani,” she called out to me.

Alia, Maryam’s sister who had flown in from Karachi two days earlier, joined her on the deck. They paused at the edge to take selfies, the lake in the background, beautiful and blue in the sunlight. Both had long, dark hair not moved by the gentle breeze that rose up from off the water.

From the beach I had a good view of the cottage, save for the peeling silver birch that stood in my way. The cottage had a Scandinavian look to it, probably built in the '60s. It was long and rectangular with a flat roof, grey on the outside but wooden everything on the inside except for the painted-brick hearth.

Grackles darted across the lawn. A young cottontail rabbit hid beneath the steps that led to the boathouse. Before going inside, I carried a pair of chairs from the deck to the edge of the beach and left them in the sand, which I’d been asked to do before I saw the state of the beach, before the shovel and the goose shit.

The back door gave me a little trouble too. I put my whole body into it, peeling the door open to hear the cottage filled with the voices of children. Maryam’s sisters had two kids each, the oldest among the four was 11, the youngest turning two in a week. Maryam and I had no children of our own, but in that moment it felt like we had more children than we could handle.

My mother-in-law, whom I called Ammi Jaan like the rest of her children, stood in the kitchen, her thin, white dupatta draped over her shoulders. She was heaping biryani from the two large plastic tubs we had carted from Toronto into the large, microwavable bowls she had found in the kitchen. One tub contained chicken biryani, the other contained paneer biryani, the latter made especially for me and Maryam since we had given up eating meat to lower our carbon footprint. I wasn’t surprised to see how much biryani Ammi Jaan was bringing to the cottage, forcing us to get creative when loading the rented hatchback. The only difference was that I had expected Ammi Jaan to bring it in her large, steel haandi wrapped in an old sheet with frayed edges and still hot from the stovetop, as she did when she visited our house every Sunday.

Once the food was heated and the table set, the kids were rounded up. The mothers, Alia and Maryam’s youngest sister, Shaima, joined them at the table, sitting within feeding distance. Then came Maryam, Shaima’s husband and her parents. I sat down last, with my back to the sliding doors and the beach and lake beyond them, my mind on some work emails, written and unwritten.

Shaima rose quickly and took some photos of us all sitting there, then sat down again. The three sisters insisted on pictures, dozens of pictures, every time we gathered and no amount of frustrated sighs, eye rolls or restlessness among the children would curtail these photo shoots. Shaima’s husband, Fawad, and I, half-heartedly policed the children, forcing them to be still and smile and be the versions of themselves we wanted to remember in photographs.

The table, a big, oak circle, had a Lazy Susan in the centre. There was nothing on it, so the kids spun the Lazy Susan until being told to stop and eat. I ate my plate of biryani in quiet contemplation while the kids found small ways to pick at each other between forkfuls. It wasn’t long before Maryam and her sisters started picking at each other too. Then, her mom and dad joined. But they loved each other very much, spending what I considered an absurd amount of time together.

My last “family vacation” was 30 years earlier. Mom and Dad, my sister Tiffany, Orlando, 1991. There wasn’t much I remember from the trip. Palm trees with anoles climbing their trunks. Mom complaining about what the weather did to her hair. Dad sitting on the edge of the bed watching the World Series in our motel with the door open to let the breeze in. I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense to watch the game if the Blue Jays weren’t in the Series, having lost the ALCS to the Minnesota Twins that year.

“I’m rooting for the Braves,” Dad said, “their manager, Bobby Cox, used to manage the Jays.”

It wasn’t clear then, though, how wide a gulf there’d be between us and for how long.

Tiffany was entering her teens and embarking on being a bitch for the next 20 years. I remember that part clearly. She was never without headphones on, resisting every family photo, arguing to be left alone, complaining that she wasn’t a “babysitter” every time Mom asked her to stay near me. When it was just the two of us, Tiff would plug her ears and sing out “duhn, duhn, da-da-duhn” loudly when I spoke to her. I’d later recognize the tune as “New York, New York” and wonder where she’d heard it. It wasn’t clear then, though, how wide a gulf there’d be between us and for how long.

“Mama! Sijal won’t stop touching me!” Sarah, the eight-year-old cried out as I rose from the table and headed to the kitchen for seconds.

“You might have to heat it up some more,” Maryam called out to me.

I approached the bowl with the paneer biryani, tuning out the commotion, the familiar blame game of children followed by their mother picking the wrong side.

“Sijal, behave or I’ll take your phone away.”

“That’s not fair! Sarah was poking me first!”

When both Sijal and Sarah had their own screens, they were quiet and ate in a slow, unblinking, mechanical fashion with occasional prods from their mum, aunts, grandmother or me to take their next bite. But if only one was allowed access to a screen, there would be noise, complaints, the screen-less one antagonizing and disrupting the other until no one was enjoying the phone or the iPad or their meal.

Across the table, Shaima, propped her phone against the pink, cylindrical water bottle with the built-in, plastic straw her baby drank from. Nursery rhymes on a low volume drifted over the table, English lyrics sung in an Indian accent and quiet enough to seem like thoughts in the back of my head.

Laila, the baby, whose widow’s peak of dark brown hair had all but filled in, stared at the screen, mesmerized, while her mother pushed small pieces of something she had prepped in a Tupperware square into the baby’s mouth. I didn’t watch for too long. The way little kids ate was disgusting. Sooner or later they’d cock their heads forward, making a real show of it, and spit the food out into their mother’s waiting palm, or, if mom was distracted, onto their plate or the tabletop.

Not having kids, and not being elderly, meant Maryam and I had very little clout when selecting which bedroom we would be staying in. We got a room just off the living room. It was the model of the wholesome master bedroom from a 1950s TV show; two single beds with a nightstand in-between, one scratched, antique dresser on the wall opposite, with zero privacy, zero intimacy. Alia, still jetlagged and operating on Pakistan Standard Time, video-called her mother-in-law right outside our door, at 4 a.m. the first night and I wrapped the pillow around my head to block out their voices.                                                               

Asalaam aleikum, Ma.

Waleikum asalaam, beta, kya haal hay aap ka?

Dad, Mom, Tiffany and I had spent most of our time in Orlando at Disney World. I remember seeing Jim Varney, the actor who played Ernest P. Worrel, being interviewed on a sound stage. I waved from behind the glass but he wasn’t looking in my direction. What else was there? Road tolls on the Florida Turnpike. The trademark sphere of Epcot Centre, the cold mist against my skin during Michael Jackson’s Captain EO.

Who exactly wanted to go to Florida had been lost in the haze of childhood. It wasn’t me, although I didn’t object. Tiffany was moody the entire time, proclaiming that she didn’t want to go to Disney World because “she wasn’t a little girl anymore,” so it didn’t seem like her idea. Neither Dad or Mom seemed to have any interest in either Disney World or the other sights we saw. Dad had talked about going to Dunedin to watch the Blue Jays in spring training, but it was October. It was as if we, as a family, did something families like ours were supposed to do. We were playing roles.     

That particular line of thinking was a rabbit hole, which led me to ask, why had Dad married Mom, and vice versa, to begin with? It’s hard to imagine two more different people. I knew very little about my parents when they were young. It’s so easy to see parents as a universal constant, never young, never vulnerable. Mom’s father was an alcoholic, I knew that much. Dad wasn’t a drinker when they’d met, preferring caffeine-free Diet Coke, unless one of his friends from the Maritimes or New England brought him a case of Diet Vernors, which he was unable to find in Ontario. Maybe Mom thought the stability of a gentle, sober man with a good job would be enough and that love might come later.

Maryam slept soundly in her single bed, on the other side of the nightstand. In the morning I’d tell her about her sister’s video call, about the music her sister played from her laptop without headphones, and Maryam would half-believe me, while half-suspecting that I’d dreamt it.

The sing-song voices of children crept in under the door about two hours after the video call. It was Adam, pronounced Ah-dum, in the Arabic fashion, the six-year-old and Sarah, pronounced Saah-rah, the eight-year-old, who had forged a tenuous alliance based on their similar ages and recklessness. Giving up on sleep, I snuck out of the room, opening and closing the bedroom door quickly to keep the voices out like they were mosquitoes.

Adam shrieked when he saw me, clinging to Sarah. It was as though the game from yesterday afternoon, where I was the “tickle monster” out to get them, had never ended. I missed those days, that age, when the good times could start and stop and start again, without any work or worries sprouting up in between.

Quickly pressing my fingers to my lips, I shushed the kids, turning down the TV to a barely audible volume. My plan to be less disciplinarian and more of a “fun uncle” was failing. Shaima and Fawad slept in the room beside ours, Baby Laila tucked between them. The others may have had rooms too far on the other side of the cottage to be disturbed, but I expected to hear the cries of the infant rudely awoken at any moment, followed by Adam’s dad yelling for him to be quiet.

The floor-to-ceiling windows, half-covered by bamboo blinds, let in the morning sun as it rose over the water. Sitting in the chair by the window, my reflection ghostly in the glass, I watched the kamikaze waves throw themselves against the shore, splashing hard through the wire fence that bordered the lawn at the water’s edge.

Adam and Sarah played with Pokémon cards on the hardwood floor, the TV above the fireplace was on although they only glanced at it sporadically. It seemed like there had been rules to the card game they played, but that mix of creativity and anarchy common to children led to the dissolution of the original rules and the birth of something chaotic and new. Sarah narrated a backstory that was supposed to make the new game make sense. She looked at me to tell the story as Adam busily rearranged the cards on the floor. I flared my eyes as her voice rose and it sank back to a manic whisper.

“You should be a writer,” I said softly.

“I’m going to be an astronaut,” she said, “who bakes cakes for aliens.”

I nodded.

“And I’ll have cats in little catsuits.”

“Cat spacesuits?”

“Yes, but I’ll have to land every few minutes so they can pee,” Sarah said.

“They’ll probably just pee in their spacesuit,” I said.

“Ewwww!” she cried out.

I shushed her again. It wasn’t the time to explain to her that human astronauts routinely soil their own spacesuits. That was just how it worked in real life.

If only I could protect them from all of the injustice, heartache and bullshit thrust upon us from a world made by assholes for assholes.

Her head was tilted back down at the cards scattered across the floor, just like Adam’s, her wavy brown hair wild and contrasting against his straight, black hair. There was a point of bone pressing against Adam’s skin, visible just above the collar of his pajama top where the base of his neck joined his back. Both kids seemed so delicate, so birdlike, so in need of my protection. If only I could protect them from all of the injustice, heartache and bullshit thrust upon us from a world made by assholes for assholes.

I remember there was a photo album with Mickey Mouse on the cover that went missing in the shifting, churning of the years since I was a kid. In it, Mom and Dad put all the photos of our family vacation, the Polaroids from the camera they’d bought just for that trip and the other pictures taken with our old Kodak. Neither of my parents were good photographers, and much of the background and even our faces were lost in shadow, blurry or dotted with artifacts that gave the photos a supernatural appearance, red eyes, flares and auras.

Shortly after the film was developed, and the photos were stuck behind the clear laminate sheet in the album, Mom left. She and Dad went for one of their after-dinner walks, then called Tiffany and I into the living room to explain the situation, our dog laying on her side in the corner between Dad’s La-Z-Boy and the bookshelf. Only when Tiffany and I started to cry did Sasha, the dog, rise up and look at us, tilting her head at the sound, her deep brown eyes pools of curiosity.

After that, the adults in our orbit seemed to feel compelled to tell me that it wasn’t my fault that Mom was gone. That I shouldn’t blame myself. Tiffany blamed Mom right away, so those same adults told her something different.

The weird part was, I did blame myself. I don’t know why. I had a sense that I took more than I gave. It’s a feeling that has followed me around ever since. So when Mom came back and asked me to move in with her and away from Dad and my friends and everything I knew, it felt like I was being given a second chance, that I might fulfil some purpose or obligation.

“Uncle Martin, look! Ducklings!”

Sarah ran over to the window and fit perfectly beneath the half-closed, bamboo, roll-up blinds, pressing her hands and face against the glass.

“So cuuute!”

There were no ducklings. Only geese and goslings. They approached in staggered lines, like invaders charging over rough terrain. There were three families, 20 birds in total, converging on the tiny swath of beach that was ours for the next few days.

The geese rode the rough waves with a single-minded determination. It was an invasion, each goose resembling in my mind the landing craft of D-Day. The beach was scraped flat and pristine, ready for a day’s swimming or tanning, and I wasn’t about to let the geese desecrate it again.

Slipping on the large pair of flip-flops that everybody seemed to wear interchangeably, I removed the dowel to slide the door open and sprinted across the deck then the lawn. Waving my arms frantically, I hissed and clicked at the first line of geese that came ashore, conscious of the cottage full of people asleep, of the neighbours on the other side of the hedge that divided the property.

There would be no beachhead. As I approached, they turned back toward the water, but not before dropping a substantial amount of poop on the bare sand. The parents left first, goslings in tow. The closest gosling tried flapping his partially-formed, down-covered wings, but to no effect. The other geese changed course, fighting rough waters to work their way to the neighbouring lawn.

“Why did you chase them away?” Sarah asked as I came in and kicked off the flip-flops.

“They’d destroy the beach,” I said, thinking “destroy” was the simple, hyperbolic term that was just right to convey the appropriate level of menace to an eight-year-old.

“They would?” she asked. “How?”

I didn’t want to answer her question. I wanted to sit down in the rattan chair by the window and put my feet up on the matching rattan ottoman with its floral-patterned, tufted cushion. It was the best seat in the house, facing the TV and fireplace, but with a great view of the lake. My paperback was where I’d left it the night before, beneath a lamp on the table beside the chair. I wanted nothing more than to open it and return to 1930s San Francisco, to its rain-slicked streets, its neon signs, its flop houses and its overcoats with revolvers or automatics in their pockets.

Sarah came over beside me, wedging her little body in-between the window and the arm of the chair, three pieces of rattan fused and bound together. She didn’t say anything, but a desire for answers was there in her eyes, and I felt compelled to say something. But I didn’t want to say, flat out, that I drove the geese and their children into high, hard waves. And why? For what? To ensure that the beach was poop-free for an afternoon swim or an evening marshmallow roast.

“They’d make a mess and then we couldn’t use it,” I said.

“How come?”

I decided on a hybrid of “because I said so,” “it’s complicated,” and “jargon, jargon, jargon.”

Reaching an arm around Sarah, I pulled her close and gave her a hug. She was the most cuddly of the four kids. Sijal had become too old for hugs at 11, and Adam, at six, felt he was a “big boy” now, too big for such affection. Sarah was constantly in Sijal’s shadow and no longer the baby of the family. I’m not sure if that made her the way she was, but the notion was there in the back of my mind.

Maryam awoke slowly, yawning and stretching, coming into the living room wearing a pair of flannel, Christmas-themed pajama pants and a t-shirt. She had tied her hair up in a loose and untidy bun. Crossing the room, the kids greeted her with excitement and she brushed her fingers over their heads before squeezing my shoulder. I didn’t say that Dad would have turned 75 that day because I knew she knew, so what would be the point of saying it? Of making his absence more real with words?

The lake found its calm as the sun rose high over the cottage. We ate eggs and pancakes for breakfast before deciding that swimming could wait until the water warmed up. Sijal and Ammi Jaan played badminton. Abu Jaan napped. The three youngest kids watched a movie, all of them crowded around a laptop on a bed in one of the far rooms with Shaima supervising.

“Press the heart on any of the photos you want me to send you,” Alia said to Maryam as she handed over her phone. “I’ll send them to you and delete the rest.”

Maryam scrolled through the pictures of the previous day, memories trapped in still frame, not to be forgotten or edited by time. Maryam leaned in close to show me the screen and I was enveloped in her comforting aura.

“Your camera is so good,” she said to her sister. “My phone is newer than yours, but the camera is not nearly as good.”

“Shaima said the same thing. But like I told her, it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer,” Alia said, with pride filtered through false modesty.

“You definitely find great moments and great angles, but it seems like the settings are well-adjusted,” I said, noting to Maryam how the camera caught her complexion perfectly, her skin’s tone and glow.

“I’ll say it again, it’s the photographer.”

One day we will all be gone, and it will be as if these things never happened.

There are memories, and the emotions attached to them, that create a tightening, hard feeling in my gut. Sometimes they rise up from there and feel solid enough that I might choke on them. Then sometimes the muscles of my jaw harden, and I have to fight back tears from some unnamed sadness. Maryam has asked me, from time to time, to talk to her about it. When that proved difficult, or impossible, she suggested I talk to someone else, a professional. But these memories, these feelings, are like secrets, and like secrets seem to exist less when fewer people know about them. One day we will all be gone, and it will be as if these things never happened. Already they have begun to be less concrete and more malleable.

“Uncle Martin, can we go swimming?” Sijal said, standing in the open door of the cottage.

“Close the door, my jaan,” Maryam said, fearful of mosquitoes coming in.

The “we” meant Sijal and I. Shaima and I were the only proficient swimmers in our group, and the other "we," the grownups, had decided that no kids should be in the water if the strong swimmers weren’t nearby. Since Shaima had the full-time job of minding her toddler’s food and naps, the swimming was left to me.

I heard commotion from over my shoulder, first Sarah’s bare feet running along the hardwood floor, then Adam’s. They were quickly in the dining room, eclipsing Sijal, who stood in the mud room between the front door and the kitchen.

I want to go swimming!” Sarah called out, in a tone as if swimming was being taken from her and given only to her big sister.

“Okay, get your swimsuits on,” I said, sliding my chair back. “Let’s do it.”

Maryam and Alia stood up seconds after I did, and we all prepared to go outside. They needed only to apply sunscreen and get the picnic blanket. I changed into the trunks Maryam had bought for me for a past birthday, which I hadn’t had the chance to wear until that trip. The kids took longer with their swimsuits and sunscreen. Within ten minutes, I was leading us all down the steps of the deck along the grass toward the water.

The lake had not returned to the previous day’s stillness, but it was calm compared to the morning. A pair of hooded mergansers rose and fell with the crest of waves, never once heading in our direction. The sun had warmed the water to a comfortable temperature and I stood, knee-deep in the lake and bare-chested, letting its rays tan my pale torso for the first time in God-knows-how-long.

“What sea is this?” Sarah asked.

“It’s a lake,” I said, “Lake Simcoe.”

“Are there any fish in this lake?” Sijal asked.

“Yes, though the water is pretty shallow and lifeless here, so I doubt we’ll see any big fish. They like deeper water.”

“Are there any piranhas in the lake?” Sarah asked.

“No,” I said. “They only live in South America.”

“Phew!” Adam said loudly.

I took a few steps closer to the kids as they lined up on the beach near the water’s edge.

“But I have to warn you,” I said in a low voice, “there are legends about a monster living in this lake.”

“A monster?!” Adam said, his pitch and volume rising.

Maryam and Alia looked over from where they sat on the picnic blanket stretched across the lawn.

“Locals call it Igopogo,” I said.

“I-go-po-go?” Sarah said, wrinkling her little nose and tilting her head to the side.

“Some eyewitnesses have described the creature as having a seal’s body but with the head of a horse and a dorsal fin. Others have said it had two huge antennae, four tentacles, six legs and feathers.”

“That sounds made up,” Sijal said.

I took a step closer.

“Probably, but I can confirm that there is a monster in this lake.”

Adam, shivered and sidled against Sarah, whose eyes were fixed on me.

“There is?” she asked.

“It’s a fact,” I said, my voice rising, “he’s big, and scary, and eats naughty children!”

All three shrieked as I charged the beach, scooping up Sarah and Adam and carrying them into the shallow water, one tucked beneath each arm. Sarah squealed before giggling wildly. It was so loud, that I couldn’t tell that Adam’s shrieking was that of genuine fear. He began to cry.

“Hey, it’s okay buddy, it’s okay.”

I carried them both back to the shore.

“I’m just joking around, buddy.”

“It’s not funny,” he said between sobs.

I took his towel off one of the chairs that sat on the beach and wrapped it around his shoulders, hugging him as I did so. The moment I released him from my arms, he ran along the beach to the opening in the fence that led to the grass. He made a beeline for the sliding door before Maryam intercepted him, holding him close, comforting the boy. She shot me a sharp look and I shrugged my shoulders, mouthing the words “I’m sorry.”

Sarah ran back into the lake, diving forward once the water was around her waist. Sijal, much more cautiously, dipped one foot in, then the other, walking out into the lake as though its surface was frozen over and she was afraid she might fall through. I wandered out in between them so I could reach either if they were in trouble. Squatting down, I sat until the water reached my shoulders and curled my toes to feel the soft silt of the bottom squish between them.

Sijal made her way toward her younger sister, moving faster and faster as she grew acclimated to the water and as her sister’s laughter and splashing increased. The silt has settled and I looked in the water around me, taking stock of the vegetation floating so slowly that it hardly seemed to move.

Alia kicked off her sandals and walked barefoot through the grass to the little fence that rose only as high as her shins. She held her phone up and smiled as she snapped action shots of her kids in the water. I was sure to swim out of the way.

“Don’t go too far out,” I said, looking over at Sarah.

There was a clumsy splash over my left shoulder. I turned to see Sijal disappear under the gentle waves made golden by the sun. She wasn’t swimming, but flopping, struggling. She wasn’t far enough out yet for the water to be deep, and it wasn’t at all rough. She rose and spat out water.

“Something’s got me!” she cried out.

It would serve me right if the kid was fucking with me. But she splashed wildly and looked scared. Alia’s eyes were concealed behind Chanel sunglasses, but her mouth made her worry clear.

“Sarah, come back,” I shouted as I moved away from her and toward her sister.

“There’s a snake!” Sijal shrieked before flopping back into the water.

The water wasn’t deep enough to slow me down for too long, and within five seconds I sloshed through it, knee-deep, and made it to Sijal. Kneeling down, I couldn’t see through the cloud of silt she’d kicked up. Plunging my hands into it, I felt her skinny, bony shin and something rubbery and snakelike wrapped around her foot. Sijal grabbed hold of my neck, half-strangling me in her panic. I untangled her foot and lifted her from the water.

“It was just a hose or cable of some kind,” I said.

Sijal began to cry as I carried her ashore.

“It was just a hose, Sijal,” Sarah said as she followed us back to the small stretch of beach.

Alia came and hugged her daughter, whose tears might have been as much out of embarrassment as they were of fear. Maryam shot me another look and I felt like shit. I’d made two out of three kids cry before they’d even begun to swim.

Sijal walked back to the cottage, her mother’s arm around her, a towel hanging from her shoulders like a cape. I stood on the beach feeling like an asshole until the sound of Sarah’s carefree splashing caught my attention. We drifted out into deeper water, where the shade close to shore gave way to brightness and warmth.

Sarah doggy-paddled around me as I half-sat in the water. Schools of tiny fish appeared and darted around us, or were still in the water like bugs frozen in amber. Their bodies appeared translucent until they came close enough for the sunlight to really hit them. Then, two reflective stripes were visible along their sides.

“Look,” I said, “minnows.”

“Wow!” Sarah said.

When we were both still, the minnows circled around us. Eventually, they began nibbling at my toenails and the skin on top of my foot. I could barely feel it, but when I did, it tickled.

“It tickles when they nibble,” I said.

“They bite?!” Sarah said, splashing the water with her arms causing the minnows to scatter.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I said.

But I had lost her. She swam back toward the shore and was soon standing in the water, walking quickly. It was not a successful outing, but at least she wasn’t crying. I laid back in the water once Sarah was on the beach and closed my eyes. Rock music was playing on a distant dock. I heard a woman’s laugh. I pictured a group of 20-somethings with movie star bodies, perfect tans and cans of beer foaming as they were opened.

Tiffany stood, arms crossed, at the edge of the steps that led down into the sunken living room. Her face was hardened and the judgment in her eyes made them cold and mean. She had become a stranger to me.

“You broke Dad’s heart,” Tiffany said.

It was weird that the two of us were alone in the house Dad had bought near Tiffany’s school. Dad made a point of staying home on our weekends together, but that night, a Saturday, he’d left without saying where he was going. Tiffany didn’t seem to have plans, which was odd as she was at the age where you drank malt liquor or cheap wine in parks, purchased by a friend’s older sibling.

“He was doing fine until you moved in with Mom.”

“I didn’t want to,” I said, not able to explain my sense of obligation, of guilt.

“But you did.”

Dad had finally started drinking. He liked to sit out on the porch with a rum and Coke in his hand and stare out at nothing in particular. And that was just the part I saw. You can’t blame a kid for not knowing what that meant. I was in bed before he got home that Saturday night, fumbling so long with his key in the lock that Sasha, now old and half-blind, growled and he cursed at her. Keys dropped and later a glass broke. With only the light on over the front door, maybe he couldn’t see me there, lying on the couch. I didn’t move or make a sound, the blanket pulled high as I pretended to be asleep, the whole time thinking that this too was my fault.

After we finished the remaining biryani and ate some veggie burgers, the family scattered to the different corners of the rental property. Maryam and I cleared the table, the voices of the kids carried on the breeze from the lake and through the screen door. Alia took a coffee and a paperback by Adam Gopnik out onto the deck, her bare feet up on the railing. She’d left her phone on the table, and Maryam opened it, as the sisters all shared their passwords, and held it in one hand while she opened her own in the other. While I carried a stack of plates into the kitchen, depositing them in the sink, Maryam adjusted her phone’s camera settings to match those of her sister.

Afterwards, Maryam and I stretched out in the sun on the recently purchased picnic blanket. It was a synthetic material, easily washable, but with an old-timey plaid pattern. Maryam sat up, leaning over me and snapped a few photos. Then she sat back and examined the images on her phone.

“See? Aren’t these much better?”

The last photo taken of my father was an inadvertent selfie the day before he died. His face was scrunched up and every capillary of his gin-blossomed nose was easy to trace, like country roads on a map creased and folded up in a glovebox. Clearly he was trying to learn how to operate the camera, but couldn’t tell if he’d taken a photo. Or maybe he knew and couldn’t find a way to delete it. Either way, there was nothing about the photo that indicated he’d take his own life. Why had he even bought a new phone?

The kids stayed inside the cottage. The sound of Shaima’s husband dribbling a basketball echoed from the front of the property. Both Maryam and Alia sat on the deck, serpents of steam rising from the coffee held in red “Be Calm and Carry On” mugs.

I wandered out into the water until it was just below my knees. The hose, or whatever it was, was still exposed, coiling up from the lakebed like a snake struggling to break free. Bending over, I gave it a tug. I few more inches came free from the silt on either side, then it was taut. I tugged again, but it wouldn’t budge. Dropping to my knees, I pulled harder, but to no avail. It must have been anchored to something below the silt and sand, but I couldn’t see what and had no idea what it was for.

Could I do it? Could I stay under until I blacked out? Could I fight the panic, the rush of adrenaline pumped into my blood to fuel a last, desperate push to survive?

Suddenly, a thought popped into my head out of some subconscious ether. I saw myself laying down on my stomach and looping the hose around the back of my neck, everything around me seen through silt-browned water. Could I do it? Could I stay under until I blacked out? Could I fight the panic, the rush of adrenaline pumped into my blood to fuel a last, desperate push to survive?

Holding my breath, I went beneath the water’s surface and tried to slip my head under the loop. It was difficult to find as I disturbed the sand and silt along the bottom and the natural buoyancy of my air-filled lungs didn’t help. I was able to hook an arm under and held the hose tight with the other hand, pulling myself against the bottom. The water cleared enough that I was able to see light shining down from above. I held my breath as long as I could before I felt a kicking in my chest as my body craved oxygen. I slid myself out of the loop and gasped as my head broke the surface.

“Are you okay?” Maryam called from the deck. “Where did you go?”

“I’m fine,” I said, “just testing how long I can hold my breath.”

“Maybe don’t do that when you’re by yourself out there,” she said, concern in her voice.

“Fair enough,” I said.

Maryam sat down again and I turned back toward the lake. In the distance was an island, and to my right a tree-covered peninsula. An aluminum roof stuck out from among the trees and reflected in the sun. Teenagers went by on paddleboards nearer to me. A cool breeze blew across the water, as if out of a distant memory and I felt like I was at Epcot Center again, watching Captain EO.

Schools of minnows circled my bare legs in jerky, start-stop pulses of their tiny tails. The longer I stayed still the closer they came. Eventually, they began nipping at the skin of my feet again, very softly, consuming the old stuff, the dead stuff, the stuff I didn’t need anymore.

“Take it,” I said. “Take it all.”

About the author

Jeff Dupuis is a writer, editor, and podcaster based in Toronto. He is the co-founder of The Quarantine Review and the author of three novels. His most recent book, Umboi Island, was released in March 2022 by Dundurn Press.