Don’t get me wrong, I love my Grandma Louise, but she turned up at our summer cottage at the worst possible time. My best friend Gail turns seventeen this week and I’m going to miss the party because Gram brought someone “my age” to “spend time with”—aka entertain.
“Sarah, this is my neighbour, Julie Bunnell,” said Gram, introducing her guest. “Julie, this is my granddaughter, Sarah.”
“Hi, Julie, nice to meet you.” I offered my hand.
“Hey,” she muttered. It was a dead-fish handshake—more like a slap, really.
And so the week began. On Monday at our picnic, Julie “accidentally” spilled grape juice all over me and kicked beach sand into the fruit salad.
Tuesday, I caught her snooping around in my bedroom and reading my journal.
Wednesday, she ignored my warning about the neighbourhood millionaire, Jeremy Lucas, who doesn’t like talking to his fellow cottagers on his daily walk. He came to our place later that day and complained about being “accosted” on the road.
Thursday, I caught her drinking smuggled alcohol and smoking on the beach, activities that are expressly forbidden in my universe.
Friday, I complained to Mom and Dad about my houseguest from you-know-where. “She’s impossible to get along with. I can’t take any more abuse!” I grumbled.
“You’re right, Sarah, Julie has her problems,” Dad sympathized. “But which is more important—how you’re treated, or how you react to how you’re treated?”
“How I’m treated!” I replied.
Mom grinned and patted my arm. “I’ve felt that way myself, Sarah.”
On Saturday at the lunch table, all five of us devoured an assortment of leftovers.
“What are you girls doing for our last afternoon, Julie?” Gram asked, pleasantly. Julie didn’t answer, staring at her plate.
“We could take the canoe up the river and collect driftwood…for a campfire tonight,” I offered, eyeing Julie for a reaction.
“I guess so.” She said, shrugging as she stuffed potatoes into her mouth.
After lunch, Julie and I dragged the canoe over the low bank to the river’s edge. I handed her a lifejacket.
“I’m not wearing that,” she said, curling her lip.
“You have to, Julie—family rule,” I replied, throwing the orange vest at her. She let it fall to her feet.
“Do you always do what you’re told?” Julie smirked.
“Forget it. It’s your decision,” I answered. I crept to the steering position at the back. Julie pushed off the shore with one leg and sat down in the front. After a couple of hours we had filled the canoe from our stops along the shoreline.
“How deep is the water?” asked Julie.
“We’re pretty close to shore. Probably about four feet.” My clothing was getting wet from the paddle as it dripped in rhythm. I should have worn my bathing suit like Julie did, I thought.
“I think I’ll go for a swim,” Julie announced, putting her paddle inside the canoe.
“Sure, we’re nearly home,” I answered.
“No, I want to jump in right now,” she replied.
“But you’ll tip the canoe! I’ll get soaked! I’m not wearing—“
I stood up, shocked and dripping, to see Julie swimming a few feet away and laughing uproariously.
“You look like a drowned rat!” she giggled. “You should see your face!”
“What did you do that for?” I fumed as I retrieved the drifting canoe. “Why do you enjoy making me angry?”
“Because it’s so easy!” she called over her shoulder, wading towards shore. “I’m going up to the cottage. Don’t forget the paddles!”
It took me an hour to collect all the floating driftwood. By then, Julie was clean and dry and sitting on the veranda, reading a book. I didn’t speak to her for the rest of the day.
An evening campfire on the shore was usually my favourite part of summer, but not tonight. Enveloped in a dark, starry blanket, the river was smooth like glass, barely lapping against the shore. Only the loons broke the calm, singing their songs as they paddled quietly in the channel.
“Do you want another marshmallow?” I asked, offering the bag.
Julie shook her head no. “Are you still angry about getting dunked? I’m sorry, okay?”
I didn’t answer her.
“I just thought it would be funny,” she persisted. “I didn’t realize you have no sense of humour.”
I resisted the urge to yell and tried to impale her with my eyes instead.
“This is a great place,” Julie admitted, poking at coals with a stray stick. “You must love spending the summer here. It’s so quiet…it’s like you own your own beach.”
“What do you know?” I snorted. “Try staying here all summer. There’s no electricity—no TV, no computer, no running water. I can’t email my friends or talk to them on the phone. It’s boring. I’d rather be in the city!”
“You spoiled brat!” Julie said with a sneer. “All girls like you ever do is complain.”
“Girls like me?” I retorted angrily.
“Yeah—girls that have everything but act like they’ve got it so hard!” Julie snapped, throwing her stick into the fire. “Your folks are nice people—they don’t fight all the time,” Julie’s eyes were wet in the firelight. “Your family owns a summer cottage—and you have a house with your own room. Not only that, you’re going to graduate in the same high school you started in. Anyone who had all this to grow up with shouldn’t complain about her life!”
“Who do you think you are?” I retaliated, trying to keep my voice from trembling. “I have gone out of my way for you this week and you have gone out of your way to make me feel stupid! As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got serious problems and I can’t wait until you’re gone!” The words carried boldly in the still night air.
Julie jumped up, stomping her way to the cottage. I was left alone awhile in the pitch black, the dying fire glowing orange and sinking into the sand.
I thought I would feel better venting my anger. But instead, I felt guilty. Had I hurt Julie’s feelings?
“Isn’t it a beautiful evening?” a voice exclaimed, interrupting my thoughts. Out of the dark behind me came Grandma Louise. “Can I join you? I was dying for a toasted marshmallow.” I nodded, too mortified to speak. Did she realize that Julie and I just had a fight?
“These campfires remind me of when your father was a little boy. We used to have them here every night. Your dad used to run to the river and dip his flaming marshmallow in the salt water before he would eat it! Can you imagine?” Gram laughed as she sat on a boulder. She stared off into the darkness, the flickering flames softening the lines on her face. “That was a long time ago,” she murmured.
Gram shook herself and placed her marshmallow stick in the glowing coals. “You know, we haven’t had much time to talk,” she said. “I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate the time you’re spending with Julie. I can tell that she’s really enjoying it here.”
“I’m not sure I believe that, Gram,” I replied. Especially not after tonight, I thought.
“Oh yes,” she asserted. “This place is probably like heaven to her. Her family just rented the house next door to me a few months ago. She’s moved eight times in the last four years and has to keep switching schools. Her parents are alcoholics, Sarah. I hear them arguing and throwing things night and day. Her older brother is in prison and her younger brother depends on her like a mother. That’s why she hasn’t run away.” She lifted her marshmallow out of the fire and examined it critically. “Oh dear, I’ve burnt it. I don’t like them that way.”
“I’ll eat it, Gram. I like the burnt ones,” I said, grabbing the hot, sticky mass with my fingers.
“Well, it’s past my bedtime, we’re having an early start tomorrow.” Gram put her hands on my shoulders. “Thank you again, Sarah. Julie will never forget everything you’ve done.”
That’s for sure, I thought uncomfortably. I smiled weakly as she returned to the cottage. I put the fire out and went to bed, but I didn’t sleep. Do I complain about my life? Doesn’t everybody? I wondered. I have stuff, good friends, opportunities, security and a family that loves me. Would I be jealous too if I were in her shoes?
Breakfast was at 6:30 am. Gram wanted to leave early. Julie and I were quiet amid the pleasant chatter of the others.
“I’m finished,” Julie rose from her chair. “Thanks for everything. I’m going to wait in the car.”
I pushed the eggs through the ketchup on my plate. Last chance to ease my conscience. “I guess I’ll go say goodbye,” I announced, trudging outside.
“Julie!” I called. She slammed the trunk of Gram’s car. This is so awkward. “I’ve come to say goodbye.”
“Yeah, you’re getting your wish,” she replied, giving me a hard look as she shaded her eyes from the bright morning sun.
“I shouldn’t have said that I couldn’t wait until you were gone. I’m sorry.”
“Forget it,” she said, opening the passenger door. “I’ve heard worse.”
“No, really…” Take a deep breath and continue. “I was angry about getting dunked and…other stuff, but you were right. I need to lighten up.” I saw her expression soften, but she didn’t respond. Keep going…“So, the next time you come, I thought maybe you could join us for our annual lobster boil. We usually do it in August, before us kids go back to school. All my cousins show up for beach volleyball…and we eat our faces off,” I joked. “I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing,” I added.
She looked confused, like she wasn’t expecting another invitation. “Uh…maybe I could come. Sounds good, I guess…if I’m not too busy.” Julie paused before getting in the car. “Listen, thanks…for everything. I had a good time.”
“You’re welcome.” I said.
After the customary goodbyes we watched our visitors pile into the car and rumble down the dirt road until disappeared in a cloud of dust. We started walking toward the front door.
“Well, now that Gram is gone, I suppose you’ll want to visit friends for a few days,” Dad said.
“Maybe next weekend,” I replied, smiling at their surprised faces. “I think I’ll have a campfire tonight.”